People who shared a late 80s/early 90s childhood with me will remember the amazing The Never Ending Story. I thought that no such thing as a never ending story could ever really exist, but then I started reading The Luminaries and got trapped in the nightmare world of the Ribbon Bookmark That Never Moved. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but I’m now in my seventh week of reading the bloody thing and I really just want to get it finished. At least I’m past the half way point at long last…I am determined to get to the end this week and will hopefully have a review for you soon!
On Friday night, I had the great pleasure of watching the new film of Catching Fire, the second in the trilogy of Hunger Games books. Despite half of the cinema being made up of students I teach (the perils of living in rural England – the world becomes a much smaller place), I had an absolutely brilliant time. The way the world of District 12, the Capitol and the Arena are rendered on screen is just as I imagined. The bleak and barren wasteland of the Districts is contrasted brilliantly with the overwhelming gaudiness of the Capitol, and I felt that I was in the suffocatingly hot, clock shaped arena with its terrifying attacks of poisonous fog, blood rain and monkeys waiting to pounce at every strike of the hour. The cast of actors for such a genre of film is impressive; Philip Seymour Hoffman joins as the new Gamesmaker, giving him a gravitas and thoughtfulness the book cannot fully get across, and my favourite of the more established actors, the marvellous Stanley Tucci, is back again as the gloriously camp TV host Caesar Flickerman. Jennifer Lawrence, who one day will come and go dancing with me, because we would obviously be amazing best friends, is of course perfect as Katniss, and though I have always thought both male leads a bit limp, they did the job just fine. I barely took my eyes off the screen throughout, and was completely engrossed in the action. It’s a fantastic recreation of the book, and now I’m desperate to read Mockingjay, the final book in the series, to find out how it all ends!
Proving how open minded I am to all forms of culture, I spent the following evening watching a very different type of visual entertainment. I bought my front row ticket to see the opening night of Henry V, starring Jude Law, well over a year ago. It is the culmination of a season of five plays staged by the Michael Grandage Company, all of which I’ve seen and thoroughly enjoyed. However, Henry V was the jewel in the crown as far as I am concerned. I never normally splash out on top price tickets; I’m usually one of the plebs in the nose bleed seats right at the top, with only a fuzzy at best view of the stage. This was the first time I’ve ever sat in the front row, with the actors literally within touching distance, and it made the world of difference. I was enthralled from the second the action began; I could witness the subtleties of the emotions that played across the actors’ faces, the significant looks that flickered between characters, and be impressed by the sheer solidity of their presence in a way that you can’t from a cheap seat. The play became real in a way I have never experienced before in the theatre, and it was so well acted and staged that it was hard to believe I wasn’t actually in a camp in medieval France, listening to a rousing speech from my King before he led me into battle.
Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t the most popular with today’s audiences; they are wordy and contain much political, religious and historical detail that can present an insurmountable barrier if performed by a lacklustre cast. However, this cast was perfect at bringing the humanity of the story to life, making a battle that took place six hundred-odd years ago immediate and relevant to an audience of 21st century Britons. Having the actor playing the Chorus dressed in modern clothes while the rest of the cast were in authentic medieval garb was an inspired way of furthering this transcendence of time; as he translated the events happening on stage into simpler terms for the audience, he also bridged the gap between past and present. Jude Law is truly phenomenal as Henry V; he oozes charisma and has an effortless command of the stage. Despite him being the main draw, the play is far from a one man band. The cast as a whole are wonderful; I particularly enjoyed Ron Cook as the cheeky scoundrel Pistol, and Jessie Buckley as the naive but strong willed Princess Katherine. Watching them was two hours of pure pleasure; I have never had such a fantastic night at the theatre. If you can get to London between now and February, you must go. This is not a production you want to miss.
In case you can’t tell from the dearth of posts, I’ve been busy over the past week or so. Busy doing what? I hear you cry. Well, let me tell you.
1. I’ve been reading. Reading, reading, reading. I’m in the middle of two books at the moment; Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, which is the fantastic follow up to the brilliant Code Name Verity, and The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, which is gripping but ridiculously long. I have just finished Ostrich Boys by Keith Gray for a school book club, which is a lovely novel about friendships amongst teenage boys. All of this reading, coupled with the plays I’m teaching at school, has made me feel rather overwhelmed with words. I’ll have to choose something mindless once I eventually reach the end of The Luminaries; perhaps the final volume in the Hunger Games series, as I’ll be in the mood after watching the latest film instalment this weekend.
2. I’ve been watching films! I adored Philomena, which gets the blend of laugh-out-loud comedy and throat-closing emotion perfectly right in its exploration of a cynical journalist’s fight to discover the truth about an elderly Irish woman’s stolen child. I also loved Now, Voyager, which is one of the films in a Bette Davis DVD box set I treated myself to. I keep meaning to watch more classics of cinema, and this hit the spot nicely. The costumes! The melodrama! The cigarette smoke! What’s not to love?
3. I’ve been planning days out for when I don’t have to spend my weekends marking. Top of my list is the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, which I’ve been meaning to visit since it was renovated. Next up is seeing Osterley House decorated for Christmas. I have only ever seen the outside, and I can imagine it must be gorgeous behind the stately exterior. I am also desperate to go to Nunhead Cemetery. It’s one of the string of cemeteries opened at the same time as my beloved Highgate, and I can think of no better place to spend a wintry afternoon than a dilapidated Victorian burial ground.
4. I’ve been walking in the countryside. The landscape is so beautiful here at the moment; the lanes are canopied in russet and gold, and the fields shimmer softly in the hazy late afternoon sunshine. When I lived in London, I never really understood the poetic descriptions of Autumn I read about in novels; woodsmoke, berries, harvests and so on didn’t apply to the concrete bound suburbs, where everything looked pretty barren all year round. Living in the country really does give you an appreciation and an understanding of how the natural world changes with each season, and I am loving our misty mornings, smoky evenings and the ever changing pallette of colours outside my window. Ode to Autumn indeed.
I read a fascinating article in the Times Educational Supplement this week about the version of WWI students get taught at school. It tied up nicely with my current study of The History Boys, which raises similar sentiments about the fiction of history. As an English teacher, I love teaching war poetry for its emotive power. We turn the lights off and close our eyes as someone reads, shutting out the modern world in an attempt to imagine the sounds, smells and emotions of the soldiers crouching in their trenches, waiting to go ‘over the top’. We gaze horror struck at images of bombed towns and bloated corpses, struggling to comprehend the experiences the poets put so hauntingly into words. We discuss the values of the men who went to war, considering the difference in our societies and whether, if war happened again on the scale it did in the early 20th century, we would see queues of our own contemporaries eagerly signing up to fight.
We are full of empathy, as one would hope, when we explore these vivid, horrific portrayals of war. However, we are also unconsciously full of patronisation. The poems tell us that the soldiers didn’t know what they were doing. They were lambs to the slaughter. They were exploited and lied to and died for nothing. We can’t help but come to these conclusions from the literature the war left behind. Owen’s terrible words are burned into the public consciousness; ‘my friend, you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie; Dulce et Decorum est Pro Patria Mori.’ Kipling’s anger was expressed in his brief, bitter couplet; ‘if any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.’ However, as John Blake says in his article, this is far from the reality. The poets were upper class, educated men, subject to a whole different set of morals, values and expectations from their comrades from the lower classes. They were not representative voices of the average soldier. Using their words as the authentic experience of war is like using Dickens as a realistic representation of life for the average person in the 19th century. And, as Irwin, the renegade history teacher in The History Boys tells his sentimental students; if the war was as bad as Owen and Sassoon said, why were they so desperate to keep fighting in it? ‘[They were] surprisingly bloodthirsty,’ he comments, with no hint of irony.
Blake raises a number of excellent points in his article, and quotes some surprising statistics. So used are we to the rhetoric of the tragedy of the slaughter of ‘a generation’, few of us realise that around 80% of enlisted men returned back to their homes. Not quite the decimation of the male population we are led to think by the likes of Vera Brittain, whose personal grief perhaps overshadows her rationality when it comes to assessing the true impact of the war. In the 1970s, Martin Stephen, a historian, interviewed hundreds of WWI veterans. None recognised the portrayal of war seen through the famous poets’ eyes. Instead they remembered having good food, good hospitality from the French and a sense of purpose and camaraderie. Many expressed their frustration and distress at the attitude of subsequent generations, who dismissed them as ignorant of the causes of the war and mere cannon fodder. ‘They were clear why they had fought and satisfied that the war had been worthwhile,’ says Blake. For many, the war had offered them more than they had at home and they had gone in with their eyes fully open. They may have seen many dreadful things, but the bitterness shown in the poetry we have used as our version of events for so long was not shared by the veterans. They did not see themselves as the lied to victims Owen so famously portrays.
So how and why do these myths of representation come into being? Why do we choose to continue to believe them, even in the face of directly contradictory facts? Well, as Blake says, this myth was adopted by the educated classes as it reflected their own shock and horror at the scale of a war none of them saw coming. It rocked their safe and comfortable existence in a way that would leave them changed forever. I also think Blake misses the opportunity to explore the fact that many upper and upper middle class families were hit disproportionately by the war; their sons enlisted early, were promoted to higher posts, and as such were on the front line and in the path of danger more frequently. They were the angry and bitter ones, and they were the ones in the position to create the lasting public memory of the war. So, as usual, we have a history that has been formed from the point of view of the privileged few rather than the majority, whose voices have been left unheard. But where would we be if our canon of war literature explored positive aspects of the conflict too? What impression would that have left for future generations? For obvious reasons, we cannot allow ourselves to see the war in any other light than as a tragedy. However, ultimately, through continually choosing to see it as such, we devalue the ‘glorious dead’ we claim to revere. Would they really appreciate being remembered as victims, as naive young men, led blindly into the gates of hell by incompetent generals? I certainly wouldn’t. It might have assuaged the guilt of the middle classes in 1918 to do so, but from our historical distance, surely it is time for us to collectively recognise that there is no worse way to commemorate than to patronise with our pity.
A book about the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is not something that would ordinarily be on the top of my reading pile, but Persephone’s latest republished novel by Enid Bagnold is an exception in every way. It has many parallels with Virginia Woolf’s later style of writing; the poetical prose, the stream of consciousness narrative, the wide cast of characters who flit in and out of the action, the matriarchal anchor and the world of unquestioned and unquestioning privilege all feature, creating an exquisitely lovely, quintessentially pre-war vision of a vanished society drenched in dappled sunlight and clothed in white dresses. There is much that can irk the modern day reader within its pages; the army of servants and nannies the Squire has at her disposal and the petty worries that fill her otherwise leisurely days are a far cry from the all consuming demands of modern motherhood, which leave few women with the opportunity to sit and philosophise on their place in the world. However, this shouldn’t detract from the essential power of the novel, which is in its beautiful and sensitive exploration of the emotional and physical connection between mothers and their children.
The Squire lives in a large house in a rural village by the sea. Her husband has gone on his annual three month business trip to India, leaving her in sole charge of their home, children and servants as she enters the final days of her fifth pregnancy. The Squire, practised at childbirth, has no anxieties as she approaches her labour; instead, she draws into herself, preoccupied with thoughts of her children and her place in their world. Around her, however, all is falling apart; the Cook, horrified at the thought of a labour in the house, resigns. The butler is being difficult. The maids are in mutiny. The children demand attention. Her close friend Caroline is having a romantic crisis. Letters must be written, temporaries interviewed, tempers soothed, hearts consoled and personalities managed, but the Squire, detached from it all in her complete envelopment in her coming child, takes it effortlessly in her stride.
When the midwife arrives, the Squire is free to fully absent herself from the cares of the household and subsume her whole mind into the process of giving birth. The midwife, an old hand and an old friend, sees childbirth and the care of the mother and baby as the greatest vocation offered to a woman, and the discussions the two have about the role of mothers and the change in women’s priorities as they move through the different stages of life provide the most thought provoking moments in the novel. Within hours of the midwife’s arrival, the Squire goes into labour, and while much is left to the imagination, there is still enough described to allow the reader to enter into the experience and understand the emotional and physical sensations of childbirth, which was incredibly daring for the time. After the birth, the Squire is able to indulge in days of enforced bed rest where she is allowed to recover and bond with her baby in peace; these precious moments form the foundation of their relationship and give the Squire hours on which to meditate on her hopes and dreams for her children, and her role in their life and in the lives of those who will follow. Throughout these days, the only reality that matters is the Squire’s precious baby; all the trivial concerns of everyday life are kept behind closed doors, at bay until the Squire is ready to go back and face the world.
There is much within the pages of this novel to enjoy and contemplate upon. I mainly enjoyed the novel for its gorgeous, lyrical style and for its beautifully expressed, insightful thoughts on the many ways in which women interact with themselves, each other and their children. It’s certainly not a novel you can only appreciate and enjoy if you’re already a mother; there is something in here for women at all stages of life. Having said that, though, this is a very class bound book, and as much as Bagnold was daring and forward thinking in her discussion of birth and breastfeeding and such, she is also rather disparaging in her depiction of the mean-spirited and little-minded servants and dismissive of women who are not mothers and therefore have not graduated to the supreme class of womanhood the Squire belongs to.
There is an occasional note of superiority and smugness in her prose that did nag at me throughout; perhaps this book did not reach the heights of success she hoped for because her saintly depiction of mothers and motherhood is only true for those able to afford to absent themselves from all but the most pleasurable tasks. The Squire, after all, does not have to deal with wet nappies or children who are ill in the night; she does not have to scrape up a child’s dinner from where it has been flung or negotiate a trip to the shops with her five children running amok around her. She can pick and choose her duties; this is what makes The Squire both a hauntingly beautiful depiction of the glories of children and a rather irritatingly smug portrait of the ease of life for the wealthy. Despite my misgivings, however, I still found this a marvellous book, and one that will probably continue to offer wisdom and inspiration as I grow older. Like Richmal Crompton, Bagnold is brilliant at depicting the inner life of children, and even if there is a Nanny to do all the hard graft, you can’t help but feel the love Bagnold had for her children oozing from the pages. This is probably one of my favourite new Persephones for quite some time; definitely not one to be missed.