Saturday 27 April 2013

Blue Remembered Hills

This is where I lived when I was about fourteen, in a Herefordshire cottage up a mile of rough country lane, with the nearest visible house also at least a mile away, although there was in fact one hidden just over the brow of the hill behind us.  Aged about fifteen (?) I decided to paint the view from the lawn in spring, summer and autumn (I never got around to painting winter: perhaps it just didn't snow; and I wanted snow). Anyway, a week or two back I found the paintings at the bottom of a drawer. The hill to the right, covered in trees, is Lea Bailey, near Ross on Wye. The blue curve behind the bare elms is May Hill.

So here is spring. The houses over on Lea Bailey do look a bit like sugar cubes and I never could figure out how to paint trees, but I loved that view, and I'm glad to see it again. Even if I could go back, it would not be the same. The elms were lost decades ago. 

Here is summer. I remember the roses being a problem to paint. How to cope with the background behind them? How to deal with the foliage? I was using a child's paint box and A4 paper torn from a pad: you can just see the punch holes over the top of the hill. But lord, that was a garden.  My mother had green fingers, and created beauty wherever she went (she still does) and I certainly couldn't do that garden justice.

Autumn came... with misty mornings and May Hill appearing again behind the thinning elms. My brother and I took a bicycle ride there, once, and I remember how exciting it seemed to ride by ourselves all the way to the horizon.  When you're there, May Hill is full of the sounds of larks singing, and of the wind sighing like the sea through the tall, tall pines which grow in a clump on the very top.  A lonely, gorgeous, magical place, a place to quote Housman. But back then it would have been 'Summertime on Bredon' that would have sprung to my mind, especially the lines:

And see the coloured counties,
And hear the larks so high
About us in the sky.

And now?                                         
Into my heart an air that kills
  From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
  What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,       
  I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
  And cannot come again.

Friday 19 April 2013

Seeing Angels

Reading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake (‘Blake’, Vintage) I found a marvellous account of how Blake saw the Archangel Gabriel in his study. Blake was reading Edward Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ when he came to a passage where the poet asks ‘who can paint an angel?’ Blake shut the book and mused aloud:

Blake: Aye! Who can paint an angel?
Voice: Michel Angelo could.

He looked about but saw nothing except ‘a greater light than usual’.

Blake: And how do you know?
Voice: I know, for I sat to him: I am the arch-angel Gabriel.
Blake: Oho! You are, are you? I must have better assurance than that of a wandering voice; you may be an evil spirit – there are such in the land.
Voice: You shall have good assurance. Can an evil spirit do this?

And then Blake saw a shining, winged shape, which ‘dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe.’

As is well known, Blake saw visions all his life. As a child of about four he was frightened (his wife reminded him) by a vision of God who ‘put his head to the window and set you a-screaming’; as a slightly older child he saw a tree bespangled full of angels, and met the Prophet Ezekiel out in the fields. As a man, he saw, conversed with and drew ‘Spectres of the Dead’, angels, Jesus, ‘the ghost of a flea’. He saw ‘the Ancient of Days’ hovering at the top of his narrow, dim staircase.

The Ghost of a Flea

None of this did him any favours in practical real-life terms. Some friends revered him, but a much larger proportion considered him eccentric and odd, if not outright mad. Blake was one of those artists and poets who are not much appreciated in their own lifetimes. He always struggled to make a living, and financial and social success eluded him. And yet he was rightly convinced of his own genius, so much so that one can’t feel the pity for him that one feels for Vincent Van Gogh or John Keats, dying before they could know of their own undying fame. Blake was so certain of the worth of his work, the truth and grandeur of his visions, that public recognition – though doubtless it would have been welcome – was not essential to him.

But what would we make of William Blake today? I don’t know about you, but if a neighbour buttonholed me one day and began to tell me that he’d recently been talking to John Milton – ‘I have seen him as a youth. And as an old man with a long flowing beard. He came lately as an old man’ – well, I might tend to back off. It is eccentric and odd to see angels, and it’s hard to blame Blake’s acquaintances for their scepticism which in turn fostered their general sense that he was a man who should not really be taken seriously.

The Great Red Dragon & The Woman Clothed in the Sun

We make exceptions for genius with the benefit of hindsight. With the weight of a century or so of bolstering critical opinion, we all now recognise that William Blake was a genius, and so we suspend our disbelief about his visions. Who knows what a genius may or may not see? Perhaps we consider that, as an artist as well as a poet, Blake’s visual imagination produced images so vivid, so concrete, that in some way they did indeed ‘appear’ before him. Perhaps, as Peter Ackroyd suggests early in his book, the faculty of eidetic imagery, fairly common in children who see hallucinatory images as genuine sensory perceptions, was retained by Blake throughout his life.

Or perhaps he did see angels? What does it mean to say you see angels?

At any rate, this is a man who sang – and drew a picture of his wife – on his deathbed. “‘Stay Kate,’ he said, ‘keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.’” His friend George Richmond (the artist who later drew the flattering portrait head of Charlotte Bronte) wrote to Samuel Palmer,

“He died on Sunday night at 6 Oclock in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see and expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ – Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten’d and He burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.”

Or, as Blake himself wrote in ‘The Four Zoas’,

‘…he shook his aged mantles off
Into the fires Then glorious bright Exulting in his joy
He sounding rose into the heavens in naked majesty
In radiant youth.’


Sunday 14 April 2013

After the Apocalypse

It's been an exciting week.  I was asked to go along to the BBC to discuss dystopian fiction on Radio 4’s Open Book [the link is here] together with Gillian Cross whose new book ‘After Tomorrow’ has just been published. Our conversation is on air this afternoon at 4.00pm, will be repeated on Thursday afternoon at the same time, and is (I’m told) available as a BBC podcast.

Gillian’s books are always wonderful. ‘After Tomorrow’ tells the tale of two boys escaping to France through the Channel Tunnel after an economic and political collapse in Britain.  My own dystopian credentials currently rest in the post-apocalyptic short story ‘Visiting Nelson’ – the germ of the novel I’m currently writing – published in the Windling/Datlow anthology ‘AFTER’ which you can see in the margin of this blog - the third cover from the top.

So I thought I might extend the conversation here with some general thoughts about dystopian and post-apocalyptic YA fiction and its appeal. And I'd love to hear your own opinions and recommendations.

If a utopia envisions a perfect, well-functioning society which we’re expected to contrast with the failures of our own, a dystopia does the opposite.  It presents us with a society which is dysfunctional, which has gone badly wrong – in which aspects of our own contemporary society are pushed to an extreme.  Utopias and dystopias have always been forms of social criticism, not just ‘imaginary worlds’.  Tolkien’s Mordor would be an unpleasant place to live, but it isn't and was never intended to be a dystopia - any more than beautiful Lothlorien is a utopia.  Nothing about either of them critiques contemporary society. But a dystopia is about us, living our own lives in our own world, reflected in a glass, darkly. 

Dystopias and post-apocalyptic novels are often confused with one another: but – if you think about them in terms of Venn diagrams – it’s easy to spot the differences. In the circle labelled ‘dystopias’ are books about bad, usually highly controlling societies which need to be defied, reformed, reshaped.  In the circle labelled ‘post-apocalyptic fiction’, the books pose a different challenge.  A catastrophe has changed the world for ever: the characters’ task is to survive and rebuild.  Where the two circles touch and overlap, there are books which combine elements of both.  A post-catastrophic world may well spawn a dystopian society.

Dyslit, to use Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow’s convenient coinage, is a tremendously dramatic way of writing about society, and society is a subject which deeply interests many young adult readers.  Where children accept their parents’ belief systems as a given, teenagers are full of questions. They want to make up their own minds, to test and try and decide things for themselves. Often they are passionate and idealistic and wherever they live, under whatever political system, they look at it with fresh, critical eyes, working out what’s good, what’s bad, what could be changed for the better? They are the future: it’s theirs to mould and create, and they want to learn how – and we should want them to learn!  Dystopian fiction is a forum for socio-political argument.  It takes elements of the world we live in and holds them up to the light. 

Thus, Scott Westerfield’s ‘Uglies’ and its sequels question the cult of beauty, the pressure to conform to unrealistically high standards, asking: What if everyone underwent plastic surgery as soon as they were sixteen or so, as a sort of initiation into adulthood? That’s obviously not happening around us, is it?  Oh – wait a minute… Or what about reality shows and media violence?  Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games examines a world in which the government runs gladiatorial shows in which people are actually killed.  We know this is not impossible.  It happened in the past, in ancient Rome.  In some guise, could it happen again?

No wonder dystopian fiction is so popular: it deals with real-world, often highly politicized questions:  How much power should a government have to rule the lives of its people?  What will happen when the oil runs out/the seas rise/the world warms or freezes?  How would you cope with a terrorist attack/nuclear war/a global pandemic?  Would you be emotionally strong enough? Could you survive?  Dystopian fiction imaginatively represents the individual challenges, perhaps reminding the reader of comforts and conveniences we take for granted.  (How would you wash your hair? Keep dry? Light a fire? Purify drinking water? Could you personally kill an animal for food?) In Jo Treggiari’s ‘Ashes, Ashes’, set amid the ruins of New York, something as small as a untied or broken shoelace can be a minor disaster, threatening your mobility and perhaps your survival. What does the future hold for us?  What about the political issues in daily discussion around us: devolution, independence, immigration, religious intolerance, the freedom of the citizen versus the power of the state?  Where will the internet society take us next?  What about virtual realities, online lives: what roles will these things play?  Will we retain our humanity? And what is it, anyway, to be human?

Most dyslit protagonists are young, passionate characters caught up in the mesh of their own problematic society and starting to ask these essential, awkward questions.  The problems they face include numerous moral challenges.  When survival is the key, should they selfishly look after themselves - or help someone else?  Do they have the strength, the moral fibre to stand up and say 'this is wrong', when society declares it to be normal and right? 

Though some people regard dystopian fiction as very dark - and it can be - it can also be inspiring, because it celebrates courage and hope, self reliance and compassion, the ability to look with a critical eye at the world we inhabit, and the desire to make that world a better place.

In no particular order - and in no way intended as a comprehensive list! - here are some titles I've enjoyed, a mixture of adult and childrens' fiction, old and new, obvious and less obvious. Please add your own recommendations in the comments!

Aldous Huxley – Brave New World
George Orwell – 1984
Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale
William Golding – Lord of the Flies

John Wyndham – The Kraken Wakes, The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids

Peter Dickinson – The Changes Trilogy (even though the collapse of mechanized society in these books eventually turns out to have a supernatural cause, the workings-out of the changed Britain are practical and striking.)

Robert O’Brien – Z for Zachariah
Patrick Ness – Monsters of Men
Julie Bertagna – Exodus
Paolo Bacigalupi – Ship Breaker
Jo Treggiari – Ashes, Ashes
Melvin Burgess – Bloodtide
Malorie Blackman – Noughts and Crosses
Scott Westerfield – Uglies
BR Collins – Gamerunner

Friday 5 April 2013

More on heroines and heroism in fiction

Among the many thought-provoking comments to last week's post on the 'quieter' fairytale heroines (thankyou all!), is this, from the children's author Lily Hyde:

"I was talking about this with a friend, who said she hated fairytales as a little girl because she was so aware that the girls in them never had any fun - she wanted to be the one riding off on a horse to adventures but felt that to do so she would have to become a boy ... It made me wonder if being kick-ass is actually not about empowerment as such, it's about fun. The fairytale heroines you describe in your post are strong and determined and successful but they are also responsible in a way that the male characters are not. ... Being responsible (by being clever or determined or 'good') is not seen as glamorous, is not showy, is not always fun."

I'm sure this is so - at least, Jo March seemed to agree.  "It's bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy's games, and work, and manners," she cries near the beginning of 'Little Women', and within a chapter or two is stalking the stage as the gallant Rodrigo in their home productions:

"No gentlemen were admitted; so Jo played male parts to her heart's content, and took immense satisfaction in a pair of russet-leather boots given her by a friend, who knew a lady who knew an actor. These boots, an old foil,  and a slashed doublet once used by an artist for some picture, were Jo's chief treasures, and appeared on all occasions", and Jo appears "in gorgeous array, with plumed cap, red cloak, chestnut lovelocks, a guitar, and the boots, of course."

When I was nine I never wore a dress or a skirt if I could help it, and certainly not if my best friend was around - we always wore shorts or trousers (then termed 'trews').  We were tomboys (or so we liked to think).  Together with our brothers we made rafts out of oildrums and bits of wood and tried to sail them on the River Wharfe; we fought the boys in the playground and got told off; we went up on Ilkley Moor with another friend who had a pony; we hid in the wooden hut shelter by Ilkley Tarn and made ghost noises as old ladies went past.  We looked for adventures, for fun.

We were also keen readers. We were trying to channel George.

I assume you all know who George is, but just in case: George is the tomboy heroine of Enid Blyton's immensely popular 'Famous Five' series, which has never been out of print since 'Five On A Treasure Island' was published in 1942.  Her real name is Georgina, but she refuses to answer to any name but 'George': she dresses like a boy and has cropped curly hair, she is 'as brave as a lion', never tells a lie, and is also, enviably, the owner of faithful Timmy, the gang's devoted dog.  By strangers (especially stuffy new tutors and shady criminal types) she is generally mistaken for a boy, a mistake she takes as a compliment.

Even more than Jo March, George was a great relief  to my generation.  She was usually in the forefront of the action, even in the illustrations, thus:

If there was a secret tunnel to be crawled down, or a midnight mission to embark upon, George would be there, with Timmy at her side always ready to have the essential scrawled message pinned to his collar: Trapped on Mystery Marsh.  The maths tutor is a spy.  The submarine will surface at midnight.  Call Scotland Yard!   George was fiery.  She had a temper and she used it.  She got into trouble for being rude: yet her instincts were always right.  While Julian, Dick and Anne would shake their heads over the tea-table, George, banished to her room, would be spotting the mystery lights winking from the moor.  Who would not want to be like her? - especially when the alternative looked like this:

This soppy girlie is Anne, mistaking a train for a volcano.

"I'm as good as a boy, any day!" was George's defiant cry: and so she was.   But why did she have to dress as a boy to prove it?

It was because girls needed so badly to read about adventurous heroines, and for some reason most of the adults writing for them were unable to imagine the possibility that one could have adventures in a skirt.  The sort of fun I enjoyed as a child - the pony-riding, the moorland walks, the raft-building, the make-belief - none of it was truly gendered: yet my friend and I felt it was: this was why we claimed the 'tomboy' label. The default assumption presented to us in the fiction we read was that women and girls did not have adventures; were hangers-on in history; led quiet, boring lives.  You would imagine no woman ever stepped out of doors without a parasol.

This attitude has changed, but only gradually, and we're still not quite there. During my childhood in the 1960's - not so very long ago really - it had barely begun to shift. You have only to look at the school stories packaged separately, as they were: 'The Bumper Book for Boys', 'The Bumper Book for Girls'.  The boys would get tales of historical derring-do, swordfights, brawls, sea-stories, war stories, plus practical tips on collecting hawk-moth caterpillars, how to make a compass with a cork, a magnet, a needle and saucer of water, and how to find your way in a forest by observing the moss on the north sides of trees.  The girls' books would involve tales about  flower fairies, the Girl Guides and Brownies, rivalries at hockey, lacrosse, and the ballet, how to make a Welsh rarebit, crochet a pretty mat for the table, and fold linen napkins into waterlilies or swans.

No wonder we wanted to be boys. No wonder we wanted to be George.  And since boys also read 'The Famous Five' - in droves - George was our ambassador: incontrovertible if fictional proof that girls could have adventures too.

In spite of obvious real-life historical examples such as Grace Darling, Flora Macdonald, Florence Nightingale, and Mary Kingsley (who whacked crocodiles on the head with her canoe paddle and extolled 'the blessings of a good thick skirt' when travelling in Africa), writers stuffed their female leads into breeches if they were to do anything exciting. Geoffrey Trease, in his popular and well-written historical adventure stories for boys and girls, nearly always provided a cross-dressing heroine.  There's  'Kit Kirkstone' aka Katherine Russell, in 'Cue For Treason', who runs away from an arranged marriage, falls in with a group of players, plays Shakespeare's Juliet, and ends up helping to foil a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I.  There's Angela D'Asola in 'The Hills of Varna' - a young Venetian scholar who - disguised as a boy - assists in the rescue of a priceless Greek manuscript from destruction at the hands of barbarous and ignorant monks. I loved these stories - they are still very readable - but along with Enid Blyton's George, they fostered in my childish mind the subconscious belief that to be adventurous or lead an interesting life, girls had to resemble boys.  Which suggested girls per se were still somehow inferior.

I was interested to read the author's notes at the back of my copy of  'The Hills of Varna'. Trease claims his characters

... are no stranger than the real people who lived in the Italian Renaissance.  One has only to think of girls like Marietta Strozzi, who broke away from her guardians at the age of eighteen, lived by herself in Florence, and had snowball matches by moonlight with the young gentlemen of that city; and Olympia Morata, who was lecturing on philosophy at Ferrara when she was sixteen.

Stirring stuff!  I looked them up.  And if the truth is not quite as romantic as Trease makes it sound, it's more complex and in some ways more interesting.  Here is Marietta Strozzi, in a bust by Desiderio da Settignano: a cool and self-possessed young lady who was said to be the greatest beauty of Florence.

Despite the snowball fight (not a spontaneous street-corner affair between a gamine and a group of boys, but a piece of elaborate pageantry with political undercurrents) her life was bounded by the necessity to marry, and the limitations of being fatherless and "therefore" probably "stained".  The young man who wished to marry her was dissuaded from doing so.

As for Olympia Morata, whose picture is here, it's true she was a remarkable woman. Her father was tutor to the dukes of Ferrara.  Aged about twelve or thirteen,

already fluent in Greek and Latin, she became the friend and companion of the the young princess Anna D'Este. The court held protestant sympathies, and by sixteen Olympia was lecturing on Cicero and Calvin, writing and translating. In her early twenties she married a German Protestant who had come to Ferrara to study medicine. The young couple moved to Schweinfurt in Germany to evade the Inquisition, but were caught in the middle of war. Schweinfurt was occupied by the soldiers of the resplendently-named Albrecht Alcibiades, Margrave of Brandenburg-Kulmbach: and Olympia and her husband lived in dangerous conditions, at one point taking refuge in a wine cellar. Ultimately, the city was sacked and burned. In a letter to her friend Cherubina Orsini, written at Heidelberg on August 8, 1554,  Morata describes her difficult escape from Schweinfurt:

Vorrei che aveste visto come io era scapigliata, coperta di straccie, ché ci tolsero le veste d'attorno, e fuggendo io perdetti le scarpe, né aveva calze in piede, sì che mi bisognava fuggire sopra le pietre e sassi, che io non so come arrivasse.

I wish you had seen how dishevelled I was, dressed in rags, because they had taken away our clothes, and in fleeing I lost my shoes and nor had I socks on my feet, so I had to flee over the stones and the rocks - I do not know how I made it. 

(Translation courtesy of Michelle Lovric.)

This is exciting by anyone's standards, considerably more of an adventure than most of us would wish to experience. Sadly, Olympia had not much longer to live. Shortly after arriving in Heidelberg,she began once again tutoring students in Greek and Latin, but a fever that she had caught in Schweinfurt never really subsided, and a few months later she died. She was not quite 29 years old: an early death, but not unusual for that place and time.

My point, though, is that here are two sixteenth century women who lived colourful, adventurous and energetic lives. Neither of them had to dress up in boys' clothes to do it.  Yet their experiences and those of other women like them have been ignored or discounted down the centuries. Why?  Because they are assumed to have been passive.  Yet I doubt if Olympia Morata felt very passive while she was escaping barefoot, or Mary Kingsley while cracking the crocodile over the head.  I'm willing to bet Olympia's life experiences were more dangerous and more 'exciting' than that of the Margrave Albrecht Alcibiades.  Adventures are rarely very much fun for those who are in them. And, to return to Jo March with her beloved russet boots and old foil - was riding off on a horse to  the wars ever really that much fun for the boys who had to do it?

Maybe we should look closer at our heroes as well as our heroines, and consider why the ability to fight is still so important to us that we tend - in fiction at least - to undervalue other forms of courage?