Review of ‘The History Boys’ by Alan Bennett… and More

(http://www.faber.co.uk/catalog/the-history-boys/9780571231737)

Well, Dear Reader, here I am reviewing ‘The History Boys’.   I’m sure everybody else  has seen the film.  I don’t do films.  (Unlike one of the characters in THB who was instructed to say he enjoyed ‘film’.  Another character inevitably asked him if there was only one movie he liked!)

oxford_uni‘The History Boys’ should have pressed all the right buttons for me, seeing as it was about grammar school boys being prepared for Oxbridge exams in the 1980s.  I was a grammar school girl myself and I applied – in vain – to Oxford in the 1970s, to read history actually.  (My father, who had attended Cambridge at the time when you could just pay to go there, wanted it, and I was never particularly bothered.  Manchester suited me fine.)  The boys’ preparation was carried out by Mr Hector, who rides a motorbike and affects eccentricity and touches up the boys, and Mr Irwin, modern, serious and ruthless.  There were parts of it that were witty, and many more which were iconoclastic, particularly the idea that to get into Oxford or Cambridge you had to stand all accepted viewpoints on their head and argue the opposite, in order to stand out from the rest.  For example (I quote from the text):  “The Holocaust… it has origins.  It has consequences.  It’s a subject like any other.”  Although the two schoolmasters came out as distinct characters, the boys all blended into one, and there was only one female character.

Did I enjoy reading this?  Not particularly, although I was aware that it was well-written and thoughtful.   Did I laugh?  Not once, Dear Reader (although I think I was supposed to).

Tomorrow I go to see this play performed at The Mercury Theatre in Colchester.  Why didn’t I wait and see the performance?  You may think my answer strange but this is it.  Because I don’t like surprises.  I wanted to know what it was like beforehand, so that, if there were parts of it I found demanding, I could work through them in my own way.   This is why I don’t like film…s.  I don’t want some actor doing all the interpretation for me.  I love (reading) Dickens, but I find dramatisations of his work all wrong, too dramatic, hamming up the gory and unpleasant bits (like the catch in ‘Magwitch’s’ throat in ‘Great Expectations’) to the extent that you can’t follow the story.  Dickens always knew how far to go, whereas many other writers will wring the last drop of emotion from the reader.  Why should we enjoy being made to cry?   I don’t.   Am I alone in this?

When I’m writing,  I am in control.  I know how far I’m going to go with the horror, tragedy and emotion.

Book Reviews, Lack of

I try hSamuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds_150ard to make my posts interesting, relevant, witty, topical and otherwise SEOgenic, but this one is going to be boring.  Writers spend so much time writing to please… no, charm… editors etc that we have sometimes to allow ourselves some space to be ourselves and let go.  Dr Johnson wrote that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money ‘  (Wikiquotes) but the truth is we don’t always.  To be spare you, however, this post will be short.

Back to the topic promised in the heading:  why no book reviews recently?  I can assure you that I haven’t stopped reading, nor have I spent over two weeks reading the last book posted up here.  I feel I’m writing too many book reviews and that, if I’m not careful, this will cease to be writing blog.  The other issue is that I haven’t read anything recently which I can give a positive review.  I wrote some time ago that I would be unstintingly honest in what I said about each book, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to pan another writer’s work – even the work of an established author.  I am just a scribbler (hardly a successful one), not an academic literary critic, who has spent years studying literature.  So my silence must speak for itself.

No, Dear Reader, I did not like what I saw:  involved and convoluted sentences (containing brackets) – and em dashes;  spelling and grammar mistakes; and words omitted.   Aren’t books proofread anymore?  Characters lacked… er… character, or were wooden caricatures.  Often none of the  characters in a whole novel were likeable, although every one contained some interesting insights.  Plots were muddled and unconvincing, ending far too quickly – suddenly, everything was all right again – although descriptive passages in all of them were well-written.   Next Tuesday, I’m going to see ‘The History Boys’ at The Mercury Theatre in Colchester, so I’m going to read the play first.   I may – or may not – write a review.

Can We Have Our English Language back, please?

rubber100“You must call it an ‘eraser’.  If you call it a ‘rubber’, someone will think you mean a contraceptive.”

“Really?”

“Really.  And what did you call your cat just then?”clarabel_on_stairs

“Pussy.”

You think I don’t know about double-meanings?  As someone who teaches IT in an FE college, largely to sex-obsessed, hairy boys, I know that any word or phrase can be made to be about sex,  if someone wants it to be, and sixteen year old boys mostly do.  So, are we going to allow the nudge-nudge-wink-wink people to take over our language?  Or the politically correct brigade,  who have issues with ‘blackboards’ and would reduce our whole vocabulary to ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’, ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’.  Of course, some words and phrases really are offensive, but these linger on, like  ‘retard’, ‘inbred’.  It also appears to be quite OK to shout out, ‘Oh God’ or even ‘Oh fucking God’, and I, as a Christian, am supposed to turn the other cheek.

I’m so glad I work in IT with geeks.  We don’t pussyfoot around.  We’re hard enough to have our hard drives… until cloud solutions take us over completely, I suppose… and we used to have floppy drives too.  When we want to show you what’s happening on our computer, we send you a screen-dump.  Generally, we use Google as our search engine, but, if we fancy a change, we might use Dogpile.  Anyone who cannot deal with it is a section on an html document – in other words, a div.   Or, as they say in the Conservative Party, a ‘swivel eyed loon’.

The Sayings Knowledge Base

“She looks like death hotted up.”

“Where there’s no sense, there’s no feeling.”

“Communism is a very good idea but it doesn’t work.”

Do any of these sayings sound familiar to you?  These are examples of the sort of expressions I heard every day as a child from my mother and grandmother.  Many of them underpinned a mindset which was very different to the way we view things now.  Nobody in 2013 could get away with something as ill-thought out as the third one above, but this saying (or something like it) was voiced a lot in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the time these forms of words were dropping into my little ears,  I supposed that people had always said these things and always would do, and, moreover, the same expressions were being used the world over.  Alas, times moved on and, without my realising it, many of these colourful expressions fell into disuse, although some still carry on.   Language is a living thing.  Other evocative turns of phrase have appeared eg ‘Mother of Battles’, which came about as a bad translation of something Saddam Hussein said in Arabic.

This matters a lot to writers.  If you are creating a story set in another age, you need to get a handle on phrases and expressions used at that time.  Some don’t, even (sometimes I think particularly) the bigger names.   Not only does using the right sayings give your story the right ‘feel’, but it helps anchor characters’ thought processes into the age in which the story is set.   So, can you look up such things?  In books?  On the internet.  No.   There are dictionaries of slang and also many websites which list period slang, as well as regional slang, but, as far as I can see, no databases of English sayings listed according to era or generation.

On the other hand, you may know different.  If so, please let us know.

In the meantime, I’m starting to build my own knowledge of knowledge base of English sayings.  Here are the few I’ve collected so far.  (Most are self-explanatory, but explanations are required where they might be required.)

On Eating and Food
You’ve got to eat a spec of muck afore you die.
On Courtesy
Age before beauty.
On Beauty
You have to suffer to be beautiful.
On Health
An apple a day keeps the doctor away.
He/she looks like death warmed up.
On Going on Holiday
Black week (The week before your holiday.  As all your clothes had been sent on ahead in a trunk, you would have to cover yourself in boot blacking to make yourself decent.)

On the Weather
“It’s looking a bit black over Bill’s mothers.”  (It’s going to rain.)

On Appearances
Dragged through a hedge backwards.  (Very untidy.)

On Wealth
Where there’s muck, there’s brass.

I would love to hear about the expressions you grew up with.  I’m not interested in Biblical, political or literary quotes, or bits of songs, but what ordinary people said to each other, mother to daughter, father to son.   Please send me your sayings, with a note about the (approximate) decade in which you heard it and where (country, region).

Review of ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson

Published by Hesperus Press.

I purchased this in Kindle format, not only because the title made me laugh, but it had been reduced to 20p in one of Amazon’s deals.  At that time,  I had no idea that it had sold 20 million copies, or that, according to Hesperus Press, it is about to be made into a film.

As I’d never read a book by a Swedish author before, or visited Sweden, part of this novel’s appeal was that it opened a window into an unfamiliar country and its residents.  The author kept referring to towns and cities, which would probably be as meaningful to Swedish readers as stations on a commuter line in the Home Counties would be to me and fellow Brits.   I have to confess, Dear Reader, that I didn’t look up the Swedish places on the map.  I didn’t want to, as their exotic names and etymological composition had a charm of their own.

What a read!  What a rollercoaster of a ride!  Start suspending your disbelief from the first page.

The story starts in a gentle fashion, with an elderly man, Allan Karlsson, frustrated by the restrictions of living in an old people’s home. However, the next few scenes set the tone of this work, which was what literary critics might call ‘absurdist’  – although at the humorous end of the ‘absurdist’ spectrum .  It’s what I have always thought of as ‘off your trolley’ writing (my term entirely), where extreme events are connected by a daft logic.  At the local bus station, Allan meets a member of a violent criminal gang lugging around a heavy suitcase and in need of the loo – as you do.  As the cubicles are too small for the suitcase, the crim asks Allan to take care of it, only Allan’s bus arrives while the crim is enthroned.  Well, what would you do?

The first element to this novel concerns Allan’s bolt for freedom and the oddballs he collects around him, among them an escaped circus elephant.  The second is the story of Allan’s colourful life told in flashback; Allan was able to use his skills in making explosives, which he had acquired early in life, to get out of tight spots and he had dealings with Franco, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and many other dictators around in the twentieth century.   Even though the two elements were interspersed between chapters, I was never confused or lost.  Both plots made sense and were tidy and complete.

In many other of my reviews, I’ve noted an ‘mc syndrome’, whereby the mc, being used as a window for all other characters, ends up characterless himself or herself.  However, in this book, the ‘Hundred Year Old Man’ is the one with stacks of  character – cool thinking, resourceful and his thinking ‘off the wall’.  Allan will do what is necessary to survive – even if that means, as it did on one occasion, blowing up Vladivostok.  None of the others are as distinctive as Allan and all tend to loom large for a few chapters then lapse into the background.  Julius, for instance, who figured prominently in the initial stages, was hardly mentioned later on.  Also, rather like an Enid Blyton school-story, all the people in the book became ‘nice’ in the end, even the leader of the criminal gang and the police inspector.

So, would I recommend ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ for you to read and enjoy?  Definitely.  And to extend your writing skills?  Yes, to observe how Jonas handled a very complex plot and created an unusual mc.

And, do I think it’s fair that any author should feel pressured to sell his work for 20p, as part of any promotion, run by a multinational corporation which – famously – doesn’t pay tax?  Emphatically, No.  I have to confess that I’m now ashamed of buying it at that price.