Archive for the 'writing' Category

Walking ‘A Christmas Carol’

24 December 2012

23122012335I spent an afternoon just before Christmas on a walking tour in London of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which seemed appropriate at the close of his 200th anniversary year. We started near St Dunstan’s, where Scrooge lived, and ended at the graveyard that once belonged to the church of St Peter Cheap, near Cheapside, where Scrooge is taken by the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come to see his grave.

In between we stopped in the lee of St Michael Cornhill, where Scrooge had his office (close to the The George and Vulture in Castle Court, one of Dickens’ favourite haunts), in Leadenhall Market, which in an earlier incarnation may have been the location where Scrooge sent the boy to buy the turkey for the Cratchit family, and the Royal Exchange where Scrooge is also taken by Christmas Yet To Come.

A Christmas Carol, written in six weeks, was an instant hit when it was published in 1843. While a lot of Britain’s modern Christmas traditions were imported from Germany by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, our guide argued that Dickens had played a large part in the 19th century (re)invention of Christmas, connecting a new urban Christmas with rural Christmas traditions that were dying out. Historian Philip Allingham agrees:

It is A Christmas Carol, published on 19 December 1843, that has preserved the Christmas customs of olde England and fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without, and smoking bishop, piping hot turkey, and family cheer within.

Piecing together the story, it was striking how this idea of Christmas was constructed through newly developing industrial age media. The Christmas tree gained popularity after a story in the 1848 Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News featured the royal family’s tree at Windsor, according to the guide, with the description a “pretty German toy”; many of Dickens’ other Christmas stories were serialised in the new mass circulation magazines serving an increasingly literate population; the Christmas card itself grew in popularity because of the falling cost of printing and the introduction in the 1840s of the penny post. And Dickens, in Christmas Carol, was the first to use the phrase “Merry Christmas” in print.

Perhaps it is not surprising that when Dickens died, a Cockney barrow-girl was overheard saying, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The photograph at the top of this post, of the Christmas tree in Leadenhall Market, in by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons Licence: some rights reserved.

Ahkmatova’s Requiem

22 September 2012

It’s impossible to be in St Petersburg for any length of time, as I was recently on holiday, without engaging with Anna Akhmatova’s long poem Requiem. It was written out of her experience of Stalin’s arrests and purges of the 1930s, and in particular of going to the Kresty prison, where her son Lev was detained, in the hope of getting food to him.

As she writes in her own preamble to the poem,

One day, somehow, someone ‘picked me out’. On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me, her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’ It was then that something like a smile slid across what had previously been just a face.

Requiem was mostly written between 1935 and 1940; one sequence is dated later. In the climate of the times, it was impossible to publish such a poem in the Soviet Union, and in fact it was too dangerous even to be found with drafts or fragments of the manuscript. (Akmatova’s first husband was shot in 1921, her second arrested several times and eventually died in the gulag.) Her rooms were bugged by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, after 1946. So Akhmatova would be visited by an actress friend, and the poet would write lines of the poem in the margins of a newspaper, while making small talk. These she would pass across, and as the actress memorised each one she would write another to be remembered. And then, before the end of the meeting, the newspaper would be burnt in the stove.

This reminded me of the “human books” that are part of (small spoiler alert) Ray Bradbury’s story Fahrenheit 451.

And of something else. The picture of women petitioning authorities, in many countries, for information about relatives who have been arrested or disappeared is a defining image of the 20th century, in Chile, in Argentina, in Russia. Akhmatova was writing of the USSR and Stalin, but the story she told in Requiem – as with so much of her work – is a universal one.

The photograph at the top of the post, of the image of Ahkmatova outside of her former house, now museum, in St Petersburg, was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

‘Up from the depths’

29 August 2012


I’ve been reading Vassily Grossman’s book The Road, a collection of stories and reportage. Grossman may have been the finest war correspondent of the Eastern Front, a Soviet Jew whose mother certainly died at the hands of the Nazi Einzatzgruppen in the Ukraine.

This fragment of ‘The Old Teacher’, a story from The Road, seemed to be worth sharing here. The moment: The German army is 20 kilometres away and is likely to arrive in the village in only a day or so.

The night was dark from because heavy clouds had shut out the sky and covered the light of the stars. And it was dark from the darkness of the earth. The Nazis were a great falsehood, life’s greatest falsehood. Wherever they passed, up from the depths rose cowardice, treachery, murderousness, and violence against the weak. The Nazis drew everything dark up to the surface, just as a black spell in an old tale calls up the spirits of evil. That night the little town lay stifling, gripped by something foul and dark. Something vile had awoken; stirred by the Nazis’ arrival it was now reaching towards them. The treacherous and the weak-spirited had emerged from their cellars and gullies and were ripping up letters, Party cards and books by Lenin; they were tearing down portraits of their own brothers from the walls of their rooms. Fawning speeches of disavowal were taking shape in the hearts of the poor in spirit. Thoughts of revenge – for some chance word or some market place quarrel – were being conceived. Hearts were being infected by callousness, pride and indifference.
… And so it was in every town – large and small – where the Nazis set foot. Murk rose up from the beds of lakes and rivers; toads swam up to the surface; thistles sprang up where wheat had been planted.

The picture of The Road at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Spies and danger

28 August 2012

Eric Ambler’s critical reputation seems secure – several of his novels are published as Penguin Modern Classics, and both Graham Greene and John le Carré paid tribute to his influence – but his popular reputation seems to have faded, at least to judge from bookshop shelves. I was reminded of Ambler by an endnote in Andy Croft’s rollicking verse novella 1948, where he acknowledges that he borrowed one of his characters, Tamara Zaleshoff, from the thriller writer, and since then I have read a couple of his pre-war novels, Epitaph for a Spy and Uncommon Danger (US: Background to Danger).

Ambler set out to subvert the thriller genre when he started writing:

I intended to make fun of the old secret service adventure thriller as written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, John Buchan, Dornford Yates and their cruder imitators; and I meant to do it by placing some of their antique fantasies in the context of a contemporary reality.

Indeed, in his introduction to Uncommon Danger, Thomas Jones of the LRB observes of the thuggish Mailler in Uncommon Danger, the nastiest character in the book by a good margin, that “it’s tempting to see him as a satirical portrait of the archetypal hero of the moribund thrillers that Ambler was so determined to supersede, unmasked and revealed for the cryptofascist brute he really is”.

In the place of the firm-jawed heroes of Buchan and Yates, Ambler’s stories instead feature ordinary men (mostly men) who find themselves caught up in events outside of their control which they don’t fully understand. As Tom Watson puts it an engaging blog post,

There is always a moment in the Ambler novels when the dupe – a novelist, a salesman, a teacher and the like – realizes with sinking fear that they’re not in a movie or an Agatha Christie tale; that the danger is real and outlook fairly grim.

In Ambler’s world, both crime and politics (and there is always politics) is a dirty business. And as his central characters try to work out what to do, they are often wrong. As they stumble through, they find themselves used, but try to do the right thing nonetheless.

All of this may make them sound a little earnest, but Ambler’s plotting is precise, if sometimes as complex as Chandler’s, his judgment of pace exact, his cliff-hangers frequent, his writing a pleasure. (Mailler, for example, is introduced as being “at one time the only professional strike-breaker in America with an English public school education”.) Several of his books were made into films, and Ambler worked in Hollywood after the war.

And his surprises are many, for Ambler is usually one step ahead of both his readers and his central characters. In Uncommon Danger Kenton, wanted by the Austrian police, spends much of a coach journey as he runs for the Czech border by turns patronising and being dismissive of the English salesman Hodgkin, who is also on the bus. At the last moment (small spoiler alert) Hodgkin points Kenton at the path for the border, before listing all the mistakes he’s made during the day that could have been his undoing.

Eric Ambler was a leftist, and his pre-war books are overlaid by the rise of fascism across Europe. In his world, unlike Buchan’s, capitalism, or at least capitalists, were likely to be at odds with democracy. As Jennifer Howard writes of his novels in a good introduction in Boston Review,

They can also feel alarmingly contemporary, especially when they tackle the dangers of mucking around in other countries’ political affairs—cautionary tales for their own age that haven’t lost their relevance in ours.

Unlike the black and white world of the earlier secret service thrillers (or of some of the Cold War thriller writers who followed him), Ambler’s novels are permeated by shades of grey tinged with darkness. As Kenton reflects in Uncommon Danger, as he ponders going to the police,

It was all very fine to say that Right triumphed in the end, that Justice sought out the guilty and punished them. In actual practice, Right and Justice were far from infallible. Stupid, honest and blind, they blundered in pursuit of their quarry. The innocent sometime crossed their paths.

Or again:

The Foreign Ministers of the great powers might make the actual declarations of their Governments’ policies; but it was the Big Business men, the bankers and their dependents, the arms manufacturers, the oil companies, the big industrialists, who determined what those policies should be. Big business asked the questions that it wanted to ask when and how it suited it. Big Business also provided the answers.

Thomas Jones writes of Ambler that he “was simply several years ahead of his time”. As we lurch into another era where business interests decide on politics while politicians play populist games, he seems further ahead than ever.

I borrowed the picture from an excellent post on the subject of Ambler’s writing at Tom Watson’s blog, and it is used with thanks.


22 January 2012

The news that Matthew Hollis is apparently now favourite for the Costa Book Award for his biography of the poet Edward Thomas is good news for poetry. It sent me back to an article Hollis wrote about the writing of ‘Adlestrop’, which is now one of the best known poems in English.

Most of Thomas’ poems were written in a furious rush in the last few years before he was killed in France in 1917, with the encouragement of the great American poet Robert Frost, who had become a firm friend. And most of them drew on his notebooks, which were full of short vivid sketches of things he’d seen.

‘Adlestrop’ was published a few weeks after his death, but the trip it was based on took place three years earlier, when he went by train with his wife to visit Frost, then staying in England. The notebook, wrote Hollis, contains this passage about the train’s halt at Adlestrop:

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, thro the willows cd be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 & one thrush & no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam. Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willow herb & meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel . . . one man clears his throat – and a greater rustic silence. No house in view[.] Stop only for a minute till signal is up.

Most of the poem came quickly to him, but he struggled with the first verse. This is the published version:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

It took him several drafts to settle on the class of train. It started as an express, then became a steam train, then just a train. By the final version, wrestling with the fact that the train had made its unscheduled stop, he’d gone back to ‘express’. As Hollis explains:

The train had to be “express” and not “steam” if it was to pull up “unexpectedly”, he reasoned; though about this word, too, he had doubts, and tried “Against its custom”, before he hit upon exactly the word he was looking for: “unwontedly”.

Unwontedly. It’s one of those words which even native English speakers have problems with. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this way:

“In a strange, unwonted, or unusual manner; unusually; uncommonly”

So the manner of the stopping draws attention to the other uncommonnesses in the poem, such as the absence of people on the station (“No one left and no one came”), which reminds us that Thomas wrote only indirectly about the Great War, but it is often present through absences. “His real subjects”, wrote Robert MacFarlane in a review of Hollis’ book, “were disconnection, discrepancy and unsettledness.”

The station itself was closed in the 1960s, after Beeching’s axe destroyed chunks of the British rail network. But perhaps that doesn’t matter, for as Edward Thomas said later in the poem, he saw ‘only the name’.

The picture of Adlestrop Station at the top of this post was taken in 1961. It is from Wikipedia Commons. The copyright on this image is owned by Ben Brooksbank and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence. Richard Burton cn be heard reading the poem on Youtube.

Unbound, rebound

20 November 2011

I’m fussy about my notebooks. Small enough for a coat pocket, big enough for diagrams as well as notes, plain not lined. I also write in fountain pen quite often, so the paper has to be heavy enough for ink (not true of the ubiquitous moleskine).

So when I found myself short of something to write in while in Brecon recently, I was intrigued to come across a line of notebooks called Rebound Books. I’d not seen them elsewhere. They had covers of actual published books, and some pages from the actual book interleaved with new blank pages, made from surprisingly good quality reclaimed paper.

It turns out that they’re made by the Brecon branch of an international charity, L’Arche, which creates communities for people with learning disabilities, helping them by providing meaningful work. For the charity, the rebound books are a way of re-using books which had no secondhand resale value, and which would otherwise end up in landfill (I drafted this post in a Rebound notebook made from a Romanian language guide to a monastery). The project won first prize earlier this year at the Hay Festival’s Dragons’ Den event.

From a user’s perspective there’s something quite stimulating about turning a page and finding an illustration or a fragment of a story on it. The idea probably doesn’t scale that well, but I’d have thought that the charity will want to spread the idea from Brecon to their other communities. And maybe other social enterprises might want to franchise the idea.

You can have a look online. They also do mail order.

The pictures in this post were taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Measuring porridge

25 September 2011

I like porridge, especially as the days get colder. But I get put off by the instructions.  Take these, from a packet of Quaker Oats, for example:

Mix 45g of Quaker Oats with 340ml of milk or cold water in a saucepan and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes.

45g? 340ml? You need to get the scales out, and a measuring jug, unless you happen to have a brain that’s finely tuned to metric measurements. In a rush, on a cold morning, that doesn’t happen. You guess, and you hope.

So you can imagine my pleasure when I bought a bag of Pimhill’s porridge oats, and found these instructions:

For creamy porridge use 1 level cup of Pimhill Porridge Oats and 2 cups pf cold water or milk.

Cups? Cups! Everyone has cups, and they’re usually close at hand in a kitchen. You don’t have to be on Masterchef to realise that you can use small cups or large cups depending on how much porridge you’re planning to make, as long as you use the same cup for both oats and liquid. And it’s so simple that once you’ve read it you’ll remember it – even when faced with instructions that expect people to think like computers. A wonderfully simple piece of user-based information.

The picture at the top of this post was taken by Andrew Curry. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Civil rights on the Hill

11 June 2011

I’ve been re-watching Hill Street Blues, which is running nightly on Channel 4 in the small hours in a version tailored for the hard of hearing, maybe meeting some broadcasting quotas as it goes.

It was , of course, a path-breaking show which reinvented the television police drama in the 1980s, by foregrounding the whole of the police station, not just a couple of individuals, interweaving multiple storylines and using handheld cameras to create a verite feel. Actually, arguably, it reinvented television drama while it was at it. Aesthetically, even 30 years on, the series feels remarkably fresh.

Looking back at the 1980s from the 2010s, it’s also possible to suggest that the series captured the notion that the American inner-city had become a battle-ground – and that it implied (but never spelt out) Gill Scott-Heron’s argument that in the backlash from the victories of the civil rights movement a combination of drugs and politics meant these battlegrounds were managed through policing rather than politics. Some of the sharpest moments in the show were when Chief Daniels clashed with Capt. Furillo over the political consequences of his policing.

And it also caught, brilliantly, in its (probably) Chicago setting the racial politics of post-civil rights America. We caught a re-run of Lucky Ducks the other night, about half way through the series, where Renko is about to marry Daryl-Ann, whose family is clearly from the South. There’s a fabulous piece of writing in the pre-wedding dinner, where Renko’s Hill Street colleagues – including his (black) partner Bobby Hill, his best man – have turned out to meet Darryl-Ann’s mother and father. It’s like the entire civil rights movement being played out over the toasts. After some speeches from Hill Street colleagues, Daryl Ann’s father gets to his feet (starts 40’30 in), and after a few other ill-judged remarks:

FATHER: ‘… I’ve had the chance to get to know Bobby Hill and he seems like a real nice boy. Best wishes to everybody.

BOBBY HILL: Well now, I want to thank Mr Maconachie and say it’s a good thing he likes me since I’m sure that he’s quite familiar with the old tradition that if anything happens to the groom before the wedding then the best man’s supposed to step in.

FATHER: Well, I don’t know what tradition that is, but anybody who runs out on my little girl and I’m perfectly prepared to take care of her, and him, myself.

RENKO: I don’t know what anybody’s talking about, because you couldn’t get me away from this beautiful girl with a tow-truck.

BOBBY HILL: Oh, that’s not what anybody’s talking about, Andy. [PAUSE]

SGT NEIL WASHINGTON: So, uh, you folks have a nice trip up? [PAUSE] Take the inter-state?

Hill’s character is one of the nicest in the show, but the word ‘boy’ – addressed by white person to black – was incendiary even in the 1980s. You have to watch the scene, because the acting and the direction make the whole story (looks could kill), but the way the conflict is so visibly there, without anyone saying as much, or raising their voices, is a fabulous piece of writing.

Marketing or art

25 January 2011

I like musicals and I like Stephen Sondheim, so wanted to know what he had to say in an 80th birthday interview in The Guardian just before Christmas.

Certainly there are some observations about the craft of the musical – especially lyric-writing – that intrigue. Hammerstein’s “Oh what a beautiful morning”, from Oklahoma, for example:

“Nothing could be more banal,” Sondheim says. “But that song changed the history of musical theatre.” And it did so through simplicity, clarity and repetition.

And reflecting on this seems to have made him regret his own, later, lyric for ‘Maria‘, in West Side Story, with its famous couplet:

“Say it loud and there’s music playing / Say it soft and it’s almost like praying”

Sondheim thinks that this contributed a “wetness” to the words which persisted throughout the show’s romantic numbers. I think I have to disagree: the whole point of the romantic numbers in West Side Story is to create a difference from the directness and toughness of the streets, to build in our minds the idea that Tony and Maria might be able to escape (“there’s a place for us”) from the world of the gangs and the garment district. Sondheim doesn’t have a lot of time for Bernstein, but here Bernstein understood what he was doing.

But the thing that puzzles the most is his comments on Allegro, a failed musical which Rogers and Hammerstein wrote in the middle of a run of huge success. Sondheim thinks he understands what they should have done, and it comes down to this:

“making clear to an audience why you’ve written what you’ve written, and what it’s about. Then if they like it, great. If they don’t like it, fine. But if they don’t like it because they don’t understand it, that’s bad. That is the writer’s fault. If you write it and it’s clear and they don’t like it, that’s not your fault. That’s what art is about.”

But this isn’t about art, it’s about marketing. The history of our art and culture is full of works which audiences didn’t understand, were confused by, and hated, and had to puzzle out over time, from the impressionists to The Rites of Spring to bebop to Peeping Tom. It’s disappointing that someone whose craft is so rich – after 60 years in the theatre – seems to have such a one-dimensional view of art and its audiences.

The image at the top of this post comes from the Academy of Achievement website, and is used with thanks.

Taking the pain away

21 September 2010

I’ve just read Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut’s book about the firebombing of Dresden, which he experienced as an American prisoner of war held in the city. It’s written elliptically, perhaps by way of answering the question of how to write about one of the great war crimes of the Second World War.

The story is told through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a man who sees time differently from the rest of us, seeing history as a series of parallel moments rather than a linear progression. The book leaves open the question of whether this is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. (And in Chapter 1, before we get to Billy’s (deliberately) fragmented narrative, Vonnegut – or at least an authorial voice – says that he has written and thrown away five thousand pages in trying to tell the story. The book was published in 1969: it’s as if he was waiting for sufficient innovation in narrative form to be able to write it. So it goes.)

Anyway, this is a long preamble to a wonderful passage in which Billy, who sees time differently, watches a film of a bombing raid backwards:

“It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewman. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of their planes. The containers were neatly stored in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewman and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

The picture at the top of this post comes from the blog Through A Vintage Lens, and is used with thanks,


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