Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Write4Children

Anyone interested in children's or YA fiction will probably want to have a look at Write4Children, a new online academic journal devoted entirely to just those subjects, the second issue of which is out today. It's free - no subscription - and there are some classy articles by Michael Rosen, the children's poet and previous children's laureate; a piece on 'White Privilege and Children's Publishing' by Laura Atkins; Bridget Carrington on the history of YA fiction for girls; an article by Virginia Lowe on a parent's diary of her children's reading - and many more. There's even a bit by me in there, my personal response to a very academic account in the previous issue by Dr Peter Hunt, on the approach to writing for children. Altogether well worth a visit!

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Singing your heart out


My mother - the one who turned her car upside down a few weeks ago: the bruises are fading - has always had a beautiful singing voice.  She would have liked to become a professional classical singer, but the War intervened, and then marriage and children.  Anyway she still used to sing in local concerts, and around the house; so I grew up singing too. I often find myself audibly humming away out shopping, though if my daughter is with me, she tells me off.

Now, besides classical music, my mother sang English folksongs – songs like ‘Cherry Ripe’, and ‘The Lass of Richmond Hill', and 'Early One Morning’ – and then, when I was at grammar school, music lessons always involved singing to the piano – songs such as Vaughan Williams’ ‘Linden Lea’.  So I went on singing away. (Sadly, choral singing doesn’t seem to figure much in schools nowadays.)

In my teens and twenties I had a shot at learning the guitar, but never got very good, unlike my  lovely brother John, who’s a brilliant amateur folk musician. He plays not only the guitar, but mandolin, concertina, whistle…and has even made several of his own instruments, like thebeautiful octave mandola in this picture. He’s been playing music for years in folk clubs and at home, and whenever he and his family come round to our house, we all get together for a music session which often lasts till well past midnight. So folk music is really part of family life.

It appeals to me as well because it’s all part of that spectrum of folk arts, from fairytales and legends through to crafts like quiltmaking and carving (neither of which I can do, though if I had another lifetime I’d love to learn) which belong to the anonymous poor or to women. And it's interesting how the arts traditionally practised by women – sewing, pottery, weaving – are still called ‘crafts’ rather than elevated as arts!
Let me recommend a fantastic book called ‘Women’s Work – the first 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times’ by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.  It shows - and I do mean shows, in photographs, how some patterns in folk weaving have been handed down literally over millennia. )

But back to music.  Many folksongs – perhaps most songs, full stop? – are collapsed narratives. They tell a bit of a story, often a love story, while implying the rest. In ‘The Banks of Sweet Primroses,’ a young man encounters a girl and asks why she is weeping, to be told that he himself is ‘the occasion of all her grief’. That’s their relationship, in a nutshell. There are many songs like it:

As I was a-walking and a-talking one day
I met my own true love as he went that way
Oh to see him was a pleasure but the parting was a woe,
For I found him false-hearted, he would kiss me and go.

This, from ‘The Cuckoo’ must, like the others, have been intended as a warning to young girls to be careful in love: but the sweetness of love is never denied, as the first verse (and the beautiful tune) suggest:

Oh the cuckoo, she’s a pretty bird, she sings as she flies,
She bringeth good tidings, she telleth no lies,
She sucketh white flowers to keep her voice clear,
And the more she singeth ‘cuckoo’, the summer draweth near.

I just love these, and I love the full length supernatural ballads like ‘Tam Lin’ and ‘True Thomas’ which tell entire stories. Folktales set to music – easy to imagine how once upon a time this was the ordinary way of telling a story – singing it in a knight’s hall, to the accompaniment of a harp. Music and stories go together.  Even the traditional tunes my brother knows so many of, the ones without words, usually have colourful, evocative titles – ‘Over the Waterfall’; ‘The June Apple’, ‘The Rakes of Kildare’, ‘King of the Fairies’.

Folksongs, like fairytales, deal with simple but big themes: love and death and childbirth. Often all three in the same song! Some are comical; some are sad. Myself I like to sing the plaintive, sad ones. They make me feel happy.

If you click on this link, you’ll find my brother’s website – Greyhound Music, after the Greyhound Inn at Letcombe Regis, Oxfordshire, a traditional pub with excellent beer, where John runs a folk music session twice a month. The website is a storehouse of information about and recordings of traditional tunes – with the music – together with some of John's own composing. If you're interested in folk music, it’s well worth a visit. Oh, and I’m there too, singing three of the songs I love. Just click on 'Traditional Songs':

The Lakes of Ponchartrain (Irish-American)
She Moves Through the Fair (Irish)
The Banks of Sweet Primroses (English)

If you’re passing near the Greyhound on one of the folk nights, stop by and join us.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Polly the puppy


Polly the puppy is twelve weeks old now and has easily doubled in size.  She’s still quite obviously a baby, but she’s gained in swagger and confidence.  She’s chewing, chewing, chewing, and the living room floor is usually littered with damp bits of tattered cardboard, or earth from the plant pots she insists on stealing from the garden and bringing in to gnaw.

She’s got a colourful selection of proper doggy chew toys, of course, it’s just that stolen goods are sweeter and more fun.  A couple of nights ago, I took my eyes off her for five minutes, heard a mysterious clinking sound, went to investigate, and found her all bright eyed, happily chewing a large piece of broken glass (an escapee from an earlier breakage).  But don’t worry, there must be an exhausted canine guardian angel who looks after little dogs: she was fine.  She's now met tractors, children in push-chairs, horses, and other dogs.

Here she is, making friends.... 
























Polly in flight.  How joyful is that?  How great to be a puppy in springtime!  As Wordsworth almost says,

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be a puppy was very heaven. 

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

My Grandmother's Books


Here is my grandmother – my mother’s mother – as a young woman.  She was born in 1892 and her name was Emmeline Mary Sherwood, though everyone called her ‘Linnie’. 

Her own grandfather was a Yorkshire farmer who transcended the taciturn cliché: he was a poet (though none of his poems seem to have survived), the inventor of a number of farmyard improvements including a mechanism called the drop-platform plough: and – by all accounts – a bit of a dreamer.   On his death the farm was sold and his son, Linnie’s father Sam, became a successful commercial traveller.  Sam was a rascal where the ladies were concerned, but he had such charisma and charm that people continued to love him despite his infidelities.   

Anyway in 1905 when his 13 year old daughter Linnie wrote a poem on the death of the actor Henry Irving, Sam must have read it and seen some merit in it.  Perhaps he remembered his own poet-farmer father, for he sent it to a local paper.  It was published, and the editor told Sam to encourage his daughter to continue writing.  

No more than today, of course, could one rely upon making a living from writing.  Linnie trained and worked for Underwood’s as a demonstration typist – a useful skill for a writer, and one that opened the path for her to work as personal secretary to the Earl of Leitrim in County Donegal.  For propriety’s sake she stayed not at the big house, but in a Rosapenna hotel owned by the Earl, where she was known to all by the nickname ‘Miss Yorkshire’.  Here a visiting Malaysian prince, the son of the Sultan of Johor, proposed to her but was rejected - Linnie was already engaged to my grandfather, William Lucas Thornber (also of Yorkshire farming stock), who earned his living as one of the early breed of motor mechanics.

Once married and with children, Linnie began writing stories and poems as a way of augmenting the family income.  She also wrote plays for the Sheffield Repertory Theatre – the first, ‘Grey Ash’ (a supernatural shocker about an accursed violin) was broadcast by the BBC, and after that several more of her plays were broadcast, and she was recorded reading one of her stories on air.  How I'd love to track it down! 

As her three daughters grew older, perhaps my grandmother had more time to write longer fiction.  Her first novel, ‘Bitter Glory, about the romance between Chopin and George Sand, was published in 1935, under the male pseudonym ‘Leon Thornber’. Above, left, you can see the rather unlikely cover, with Sand (?) glancing coquettishly at the portrait of Chopin.  The cover belies the book, which is well researched and serious. It’s of its time, of course.  No novel today would open quite as this one does:

There was a certain apartment, very large and square and lofty, on the Chausée d’Antin, and there it seemed that spring had taken laughing refuge against the cutting winds and flurrying snow of winter’s last despairing stand.  A bright fire leaped on the hearth, casting rosy shadows on the pale panelled walls and the polished floor strewn with rich rugs as bright as summer.

We're too self-conscious for this kind of fanciful flourish these days.  But I confess I rather like it; in context it sounds lovely!  And the book was well received for a first novel, though after that Linnie stuck to places and people she knew inside out and through and through.  There was, at the time, a sort of genre of 'Yorkshire women novelists':  Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Phyllis Bentley.  Though she wasn't as well known, my grandmother became part of it.  Her next book, ‘And One Man’, 1936, was based on her own family history and opens on a Yorkshire farm.   Jude Wayland wakes up on a bitter winter’s morning, and you can tell the writer knows all about it:

In the big kitchen below him, he could hear Sarah, his brother’s wife, moving about her morning tasks with the maids.  Fire irons rattled, dishes and cutlery clattered, the wooden pump on the sink groaned and gushed, there was a rattle of pails in the outer kitchen. 
Then someone dragged the coal bucket across the tiled floor, and the noise of it set Jude’s teeth on edge.  He sat up in bed in sudden fury. ‘For God’s sake,’ he cried, ‘can’t Sarah keep those women quiet?  She knows Dad’s ill.’

Dicky Lismore, one of the most colourful characters in the book, is based solidly on her own father Sam.  Like Sam, Lismore is a commercial traveller:  ‘A tall young man…[whose] smile lifted the wings of his flowing brown moustache, disclosing beautiful teeth.’  He meets Jude on a train to ‘Stelborough’ (Sheffield), and rattles on:

‘It’s a rum place, Stelborough.  Filthy, but where there’s muck there’s money, and where there’s money, women go in for being soulful and arty.  It’s full of music.  Some of it is good, too, but not all.  I heard the Messiah there once.  God, what a row! Half a hundred withered spinsters piping out, ‘Unto us a son is born,’ and then the basses chipped in ‘Wonderful.’  And it would have been wonderful too, judging by the look of them.  They were past the bearing age.’

It’s not just because I’m Linnie’s grand-daughter that I enjoy this book – in fact, sometimes that almost gets in the way.  It’s odd reading love-scenes written by your own grandmother.  A girl called Lottie makes love to Jude, and:

Her hands clung about him, following the hard masculine lines of his body, the broad shoulders, the slim waist, the narrow hips and flanks.  She felt him tremble under her touch and she laughed aloud in sheer delight when he gripped her awkwardly and kissed her…
An hour later he was fast asleep…but Lottie lay awake beside him, hour after hour, listening to his quiet breathing and half-regretting, half-exulting in the thing which she had done. 

Her third novel, ‘Portrait in Steel,’ follows the fortunes of the Sheffield steelworks via the personal history of one Nicholas Brough, who begins as an idealistic youth at the start of the first World War and ends up in the thirties as ‘a damned hard man’.  This novel takes in the wartime steel boom, the slump of the twenties, and the resurgence of the steel industry as the Spanish Civil War starts to bite.  It was published in 1938, and the whole of the second edition was bombed in its London warehouse during the blitz and literally went up in smoke. (This makes me feel like a modern softy for complaining about print-runs, etc.)
 
And after that, she never published another novel, although my mother tells me that she did begin writing one.  It had a supernatural theme involving black magic, and as she read it out chapter by chapter to the family, my mother and her sisters were agog with excitement to find out what would happen.  But they never did.  My grandmother had always been rather superstitious, and somehow she must have managed to scare herself.  She stopped writing it, and after her death my mother could not find any trace of the manuscript.   

I was only four years old when Linnie died.  My memories of her are hazy, and from a low viewpoint – her full blue skirt: the Chinese silk wastepaper basket under her dressing table with little appliqued mandarins on its eight panels (with real beards!), the gleaming glass jars of bottled fruit she made each summer stacked along the shelf in the passage upstairs, and the dressmaker’s dummy which lay on top of her wardrobe like some sort of pallid Egyptian mummy-case.  When I stayed overnight and shared her room, I did not dare to turn my back on it. 

How much I should like to sit down with Linnie Thornber and talk about the books we’ve written and the craft we share!  But, though I never really knew her, at least I can read her books and know that she would be glad that writing still runs in the family blood. 

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Hearing Voices - the Do's and Don'ts of Dialogue

First posted at the Awfully Big Blog Adventure which can be found here, these are some thoughts about writing dialogue.

If hearing voices is a form of saintliness or madness, all authors are mad saints. Creating characters means knowing them from the inside out and being able to ‘hear’ how they think and how they talk. An out-going, confident character will reflect that in his or her speech. A nervous character will sound diffident, hesitant, or perhaps more formal. The goal is to create a distinctive voice for each of the main characters. They should not all sound alike.

This is important even if you are writing in the first person. First person narratives can be in danger of sounding anonymous and samey. I’ve read a few first person teen novels which, apart from the names, you could be forgiven for assuming were all about the same heroine, a sort of generic ‘15/16 year old modern girl’. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Here’s an expert at work:

You know that old film they always show on the telly at Christmas, the Wizard of Oz? I love it, especially the Wicked Witch of the West, with her cackle and her green face and all her special flying monkeys. I’d give anything to have a wicked winged monkey as an evil little pet. It could whiz through the sky, flapping its wings and sniffing the air for that awful stale instant-coffee-and-talcum powder teacher smell and then it would s-w-o-o-p straight onto Mrs Vomit Bagley and carry her away screaming.
(“The Dare Game”, Jacqueline Wilson, 2000)

And we know this girl. She’s exuberant, imaginative, funny, a rebel – Jacqueline Wilson’s ‘Tracy Beaker’. It looks easy, but it’s not. It would be VERY easy to write something similar but far less engaging:

There’s an old film they often show on the telly at Christmas, the Wizard of Oz. I’ve always loved it, and my favourite character is the Wicked Witch of the West. I like the way she cackles, and her green face, and all her special flying monkeys. I’ve always wished I could have a wicked winged monkey for a pet…

This has lost all its energy and sounds written down, not spoken.

Then there’s the pitfall of dialects and regional accents. Here, a little goes a very long way. Unless you yourself are steeped in a dialect or accent, it’s easy to get it wrong and sound phony. Avoid “begorrah’s” and “eeh, by gum’s”; avoid too many dropped ‘h’s’ and rhyming slang. Of course, if you are really at home with an accent, it can add enormously to your writing. In this extract, an eighteenth century Yorkshire drummer boy walks out of a hill – and out of his own time:

“I wasn’t so long,” said the drummer. “But I niver found nowt. I isn’t t’first in yon spot; sithee, I found yon candle. Now I’s thruff yon angle, and it hasn’t taken so long, them bells is still dinging. It’s a moy night getting. But come on, or they’ll have the gate fast against us and we’ll not get our piggin of ale.”
“Who are you?” said Keith.
“I thought thou would ken that,” said the boy. “But mebbe thou isn’t t’fellow thou looks in t’dark.”

“Earthfasts” William Mayne, 1966


If you’re not this confident (and most of us aren’t), be sparing in your use of dialect words. The reader will be able to use a few subtle pointers to ‘fill in’ the accent from his or her own experience, and that’s better than getting it wrong. Slight changes to grammar will sometimes help. A nineteenth century servant girl might be likely to say, “What was you thinking of, talking to the missus like that?” rather than, “What were you thinking of?” Be consistent, though. If she starts out talking like this, she has to keep it up.

If you are writing historical fiction, it’s better for your dialogue to sound timelessly modern, than to wallow in a sea of what Robert Louis Stevenson used to call ‘tushery’: peppering your dialogue with phony “forsooth’s”, “tush-tushes” and “by my halidom’s”. Modern writers are less likely to make this mistake, but note that ‘timelessly’ means you cannot use modern colloquialisms. Cavaliers and Victorians cannot convincingly use 20th century idioms like ‘OK’. Check the Oxford Dictionary if you’re not sure. There are always surprises. ‘Kid’ for ‘child’ goes right back to the eighteenth century.

Then there’s a disease to which fantasy writers in particular are terribly prone. I call it ‘Wizard’s Waffle’, and it involves using grammatical inversions and a stilted, archaic vocabulary in an attempt to make your character sound wise (and sometimes to conceal the fact that neither you nor he actually have very much to say.) It’s partly Tolkien’s influence: he uses deliberately ‘high’ or heroic language when he wants to emphasise the importance of an event. At the end of “The Return of the King”, characters sound positively Biblical. Aragorn, accepting the crown of Gondor, says:

“By the labour and valour of many I have come into my inheritance. In token of this I would have the Ring-bearer bring the crown to me, and let Mithrandir set it upon my head…for he has been the mover of all that has been accomplished, and this is his victory.”

It’s grand, but it’s dull: Aragorn’s character is completely submerged by the style. If he talked like this all the time, we would soon lose interest in him: fortunately, for most of the book, he doesn’t. But at least Tolkien, a Professor of Philology, knew how to handle archaic grammar and cadences. Many modern writers don’t – so if you are irresistibly tempted towards the ‘what-say-the-elves-on-this-matter’ type of dialogue, get the grammar right. The verb ‘to be’ used to be conjugated thus:

I am
Thou art (familiar singular)
Ye be/you are (polite singular)
He/she/it is
We are
You are (plural)
They are

This, of course, is why the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ with its thee’s and thou’s is actually the familiar way of speaking to God – not, as I used to think when I was little, a special dressed-up sort of way.


Two more often-misused verbs:

I have
Thou hast (familiar singular) 
You have (polite singular)
He/she/ it hath
We have 
You have (plural)
They have



I do
Thou dost (familiar singular)
You do (polite singular)
He/she/it doth
We do (plural)
You do (plural)
They do


Commit all this to memory and you will be preserved from Monty Pythonesque dialogue along the lines of, “Fair knight, I prithee tell me if ye art Sir Lancelot? For the omens doth foretell that only he canst save me.”

Mind you, in the right hands, all these rules can be creatively bent, twisted and broken. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld characters frequently say things like ‘OK’ and it doesn’t matter a bit, because Discworld is really our own world in a carnival mask – and Pratchett has wise and wonderful things to say about it.

When I was writing the Troll series, set in a Viking-Scandinavia-that-never-was, I tried my best to make the characters sound fresh without being too obviously modern. Vocabulary was one way. It may sound obvious, but you can’t have ‘battleship grey’ at a time before there are any grey battleships, for example. Angry people may ‘shout’, but should not ‘explode’, centuries before any grenades or bombs. At one point I thought very hard before allowing myself to use the verb ‘corkscrewed’ to describe a twisting underground passage. Clearly, Vikings didn’t have corkscrews. But I decided that, in context, no image of an actual corkscrew would spring incongruously to mind. I don’t mind the occasional anachronism – so long as I know it’s there…

In my latest book “Dark Angels” (“The Shadow Hunt” in the USA), set in the 12th century, there’s one character who sounds more modern than the others. His name is Halewyn, and he is – or masquerades as – a wandering jongleur, a sort of intinerant juggler-cum-minstrel. The boy, Wolf, is angry because Halewyn has brought an unguarded flame into the stables where the mysterious elf-girl is kept.

Halewyn stood in the glimmering drizzle, hanging his head so extravagantly that the donkey-ears on his cap drooped.
“I’m sorry,” he said again. He pounded his thin chest. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Anything you’d like me to do in penance? Turn a somersault? Do three cartwheels across the yard, dodging the puddles? Sing a song standing on my head?”
Wolf couldn’t help laughing. “No, it’s all right. Just remember, flames are dangerous in stables and barns.”
“Oh, I will. I’ll be very, very careful.” Halewyn perked up. “At least I saw her,” he said buoyantly. “And now, take me to your leader.”

‘Take me to your leader.’ Why would I put such an iconic modern phrase into the mouth of a 12th century character? And the answer is: Because Halewyn isn’t quite what he seems. He is  – well, I'd better not say, but he’s immortal – and being immortal, I think he can transcend time and speak ‘out of turn’ and out of his century.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Another short interruption to service

Imagine the scene.  Mother's Day here in the UK, a beautiful early spring day with warm sunshine, and I'm sitting in the conservatory at the back of the house reading, and thinking vaguely that my mother will soon be arriving.

Then I hear an enormous and rather prolonged groinging crash.  It could be a tractor and trailor going over a bump, but somehow I don't think so.  I dash out of the house and this, more or less, is what I see, except that no one else was around and the police hadn't yet arrived.


So I yell for my husband to call the emergency services, and run to the car, and close up, it looks even worse:


I don't recognise the car, because you don't recognise a car when it's upside down. I'm thinking oh my God, whoever is inside this is marmalised...

Then, through the side window, I see a foot waving: the foot is clearly that of an older lady, but I'm still not thinking with any great clarity.  I wrench at the door, which is jammed.  Neighbours arrive.  We get the back door open: I look in, and there is my mother, lying on her back on the roof, smiling at me shakily and saying with great calm:  "I'm all right!  I'm all right!"

And miraculously, she was all right.   She was able to sit up and shuffle out through the opened door, and by the time the fire brigade, police and ambulance services had arrived, she was sitting on my sofa, ready for a cup of tea, and apologising nicely to everyone: 'I'm so sorry to cause all this trouble!' - while the puppy made mad love to about six large policemen and paramedics clad in reflector jackets.

After they'd all gone, we had Mother's Day tea.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Dogs in Books


Polly the puppy is currently ruling my life during every waking minute of hers. Things will change week by week, but at the moment she sleeps all night (what a good dog!) and wakes, whining, just before 7am. This is my cue to jump out of bed and take her into the garden in my pyjamas, where she darts around, nose into everything, small tail wagging furiously. Then it’s all go for the next two hours – chewing, galloping about with squeaky toys, leaping at our knees with flattened ears, beseeching eyes and scrabbling paws, and staring transfixed at the cats – one of which saunters past with a coquettish glance, while the other bushes out her fur and vanishes.

The rest of the day follows a two-hours-off/two-hours-on pattern of mad play followed by utterly flopped-out sleep. I try to do all my other tasks while she’s asleep. And you can bet she’s waking up, fresh for more fun, just before I’m quite ready. Boy, do I sleep well at night.

Anyway, in honour of Polly, I thought I would write today about dogs in books.

Dogs in books are a Good Thing. I always try to have a dog or two in each of mine. In my first book ‘Troll Fell’ there are three, all quite different: Peer’s faithful little brown mongrel Loki, his uncle’s unpleasant mastiff Grendel, and steady old Alf, the sheepdog at Hilde’s farm. And in my fourth book ‘Dark Angels’ (‘The Shadow Hunt’) there is the whole pack of Lord Hugo’s hounds, including the elegant white greyhound Argos. Country people have always had lots of dogs, and in past centuries most people were country people, so to have a lot of dogs in the books makes perfect sense.

Historical fiction and dogs make me think immediately of Rosemary Sutcliff, whose books I devoured as a child. Sutcliff – who must easily win the title of Britain’s most loved writer of junior historical fiction – loved dogs, and there is a noble dog in many of her books - 'Whitethroat' in 'Warrior Scarlet', 'Argos' in 'Brother Dusty Feet' - but for me the most iconic is ‘Dog’ (in ‘Dawn Wind’, 1961, illustration by Charles Keeping), the young war-hound that the boy Owain finds by moonlight on the ruins of the battlefield:

it was something alive in the cold echoing emptiness of a dead world. It stood with one paw raised, looking at him, and Owain called, hoarsely, with stiff lips and aching throat: ‘Dog! Hai! Dog!’ … [It] came, slowly and uncertainly… once it stopped altogether; then it finished at the run and next instant was trembling against his legs.
He was a young dog; the beautiful creamy hair of his breast-patch was stained and draggled, and his muzzle bloody in the moonlight… ‘Dog, aiee, dog, we are alone then. There’s no one else. We will go together, you and I.’

The brilliance of the writing is to show us, in the lonely and innocent terror of the dog and what he has been made to do, the full dreadfulness of war.

Most children love dogs and enjoy reading about them. Enid Blyton used the combination of ‘four children and a dog’ again and again. ‘The Famous Five’ would not be five without Timmy the dog, who is big enough to offer some protection and even to be of use to the plot – many’s the time Timmy carries that essential scribbled note (‘Help! Locked in the old castle! Our tutor is a spy: call Scotland Yard!’) attached to his collar. ‘The Secret Seven’ had a dog called Scamper, I think, and there’s a black spaniel in the ‘Barney’ books, and so on.

It used not to be unusual for even quite young children to be let out alone with a doggy companion. In the 1960’s my brother and I were allowed to roam about on our own on the moors or streets of our country town, so long as we took the dog with us. Stories about children with dogs were so common that many children must have believed ownership of a dog was some kind of right. But what about children who couldn’t have dogs? In Philippa Pearce’s 1962 classic ‘A Dog So Small’ (illustrated by Anthony Maitland), the child hero Ben longs for a dog, but lives in a London back street with no room for one. His grandfather promises him a dog for his birthday, but the promise can’t be kept:


…[Ben] cut the string around the parcel and then unfolded the wrapping paper.
They had sent him a picture instead of a dog.

And then he realised that they had sent him a dog after all. He almost hated them for it. His dog was worked in woollen cross-stitch, and framed and glazed as a little picture. There was a letter which explained: ‘Dear Ben, Your grandpa and I send you hearty good wishes for your birthday. We know you would like a dog, so here is one…’
…Ben said nothing, because he could not.

To compensate, Ben begins to fantasise about a dog of his own – ‘a dog so small you could see it only with your eyes shut’. If by some chance you haven’t read this book, I won’t spoil it for you by telling you the ending, only that it’s one of the most touching stories ever about longing, and the dangers of wish fulfilment, and of coming to terms with reality.

Not all dogs in children’s fiction are noble characters. Witness the memorably vain and selfish King Charles spaniel Wiggins, the pet of Maria in Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘The Little White Horse’:

It was the belief of Maria and Miss Heliotrope that he loved them devotedly because he always kept close at their heels, wagged his tail politely when spoken to, and even kissed them upon occasion. But all this Wiggins did not from affection but because he thought it good policy... The only parts of Wiggins that were not cream coloured were his long silky ears and the patches over his eyes. These were the loveliest possible shade of chestnut brown. His eyes were brown too, and of a liquid melting tenderness that won all hearts; the owners of the said hearts being quite unaware that Wiggins’s tenderness was all for himself, not for them.

Of course this is funny, and we forgive Wiggins just as Maria does, because he fulfils a comedic function that is another important role for dogs in books and in life. Young children often regard a dog as a clownish, non-threatening little brother or sister – reassuringly clumsier and more foolish than themselves. Yet, like clowns, dogs can get away with ‘naughty’ activities a child secretly enjoys. Loki, in ‘Troll Fell’, can express rebellion against Peer’s bullying Uncle Baldur by simply being himself – an irrepressible, lively little dog.

But now I’m wondering. Have there been many dogs in recent books for children? The only one I can think of, off-hand, is Todd’s dog Manchee in Patrick Ness’s ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’ – a wonderful character in a wonderful book, though to be read with a large box of tissues handy, if you are tender-hearted. Are there many others? And if not, why not, and does it reflect the fact that children nowadays don’t get to roam around on their own with their dogs?


Whoops, Polly’s waking up. Got to go!


Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Alice, Creator and Destroyer


I once read – I think it was an essay by C.S. Lewis – that to have weird or unusual protagonists in a fantasy world was gilding the lily: simply too much icing on a very fancy cake.  And then he cited Alice as a good example of an ordinary child to whom strange things happen.  I’m not sure he was right.

Of course it’s true that many heroes and heroines in classic 20th century fantasy are ‘ordinary’ – hobbits, for example; and Lewis’s own Pevensie children, and Alan Garner’s Colin and Susan in the ‘Weirdstone of Brisingamen’ and ‘The Moon of Gomrath’.  There’s a pleasure in seeing an ordinary person rise to the occasion, as when Bilbo Baggins turns out to be a very good burglar indeed, or when Frodo self-sacrificingly takes on the burden of the Ring.   Tolkien must have seen many instances of ‘ordinary’ heroism in the trenches of World War I. 

And I’d agree that one does need to able to identify with characters in fantasy.  For me, one of the difficulties of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is that apart from Titus and Fuschia there are too few characters for whom one can feel any empathy.  Although I love the setting and the descriptions of the immense castle and its strange ritual life, I become emotionally exhausted by Peake’s cast of grotesques.  Peake had, it’s fair to say, a line on the darker side of life.  And not coincidentally for this post, he illustrated the two Alice books.  Just look at his picture of Alice emerging out of the mirror into Looking-Glass Land, and compare it with Tenniel’s.

Tenniel’s Alice is barely halfway through the mirror.  She looks not at us, but around and down at the room with an expression of calm interest.   She is a little excited, perhaps, but not alarmed.  We don’t feel there in the room waiting for her: instead, we are looking through the window of the picture.  We can glimpse part of the room.  The grinning clock is strange but not threatening.  The room itself appears to be well lit.  In Tenniel’s drawing, Alice is firmly planted on the mantelshelf.  She has a chance to look around, and will jump down when she chooses.

 
Peake’s Alice appears through the misty glass like an apparition.  She looks straight into our eyes, as if we are the first thing she sees. Her face is very white, and so are her hands, outspread as if pressing through the glass, but also gesturing an ambiguous mixture of alarm and conjuration.  She is coming out of darkness, and there are no reflections to suggest what the looking glass room may contain – except us, for we are already there, waiting for her.  (We may not be friendly).  With one leg waving over the drop, she is about to fall off the mantelshelf into the room – for her position is precarious.

Even the 1951 Disney cartoon recognised the tough element in Alice’s character, and the latent terror in Wonderland.  They made her into a prim little cutie, but she still managed to stand up to the frightening Queen of Hearts and the Mad Hatter.  And we must wait to see what Tim Burton’s new film will make of her…

So how ordinary is Alice, after all – is she really just an innocent and rather pedestrian Every-little-girl in a mad, mad world?  Or does she have her own brand of illogical weirdness with which to combat the weirdness she finds?  I think she does, and I think modern readers often miss it.  We look at the blonde hair, the hairband, the blue dress and the white pinafore, and forget her speculative, inventive mind, her impatience - and passages like this:

And once she had really frightened her old nurse by shouting suddenly in her ear, “Nurse!  Do let’s pretend that I’m a hungry hyaena, and you’re a bone!” 

Compare that with George MacDonald’s heroine in ‘The Princess and The Goblin’.  Can you imagine Princess Irene doing anything so bizarre?   Irene is truthful and brave, but always a little lady: the Victorian gentleman’s ideal child.   The adventures that happen to Irene are not of her own creation.  But it’s Alice’s weird imaginings – about what might be happening on the other side of the glass – that take her into Looking Glass Land at all.  Alice is both a credibly strong-minded little girl – capable of losing her temper, of defending herself in the White Rabbit’s house by kicking Bill the lizard up the chimney – and a surreal philosopher, as some children are.  She is the maker of her own imaginary worlds, and when they get too chaotic, she ends them – amid considerable violence. 

“Who cares for you?” said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time) “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”    
            At this the whole pack rose up into the air and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger, and tried to beat them off…

(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

“I can’t stand this any longer!” she cried as she jumped up and seized the tablecloth with both hands: one good pull, and plates, dishes, guests and candles came crashing down together in a heap on the floor.
            “And as for you,” she went on, turning fiercely upon the Red Queen… “I’ll shake you into a kitten, that I will!” 

(Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass)

Tenniel’s illustrations catch the vivid threat and drama of the situation.  In Peake's, lit by three tall sinister candles, it looks as if Alice and the two Queens are being sucked into a black hole.  

Some books with dream endings can feel like a cheat.  ‘And she woke up, and it was only a dream’ seems to negate all that has happened.  But in the case of Alice, the dream settings are absolutely necessary.  She has not strayed into a pre-existing Narnia like Lucy Pevensie.  She is the Alpha and Omega of her own fantasylands. She is, like dreaming Brahma, the creator and destroyer of worlds: and when she awakens from her dreams, it is utterly logical that Wonderland and Looking Glass Land shall cease to be.   


Thanks for reading - more puppy pictures in my next post!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A Brief Interruption to Service...

...in the shape of Polly, our eight-week old Dalmatian puppy, who bounded into the house and our lives yesterday.  She is adorable, lively, curious, mischievous, and trembling with the intensity of every second's new experience.  Meeting the cats.  Visiting the lawn.  Feeling frost under her paws.  Chewing a twig... and being gently dissuaded from chewing the very first yellow crocus to pop up in the lawn.

She's going to keep me very busy for a week or two as she gets accustomed to living here, so posts on this blog may be a little disrupted for the same length of time - however, I have plenty of things I'm burning to write about, and should be able to post at least one of them later this week. 

In the meantime - some more pictures!