steepholm: (tree_face)
When did good witches start to appear in British children's literature? I don't mean wise women, good fairies, or anything of that kind, but outright, named-as-such witches.

In America there are the Oz books, of course, though they in any case seem something of an outlier: did Oz spawn other good Stateside witches in the decades immediately following? In the UK, though, mid-twentieth-century witches (e.g. in John Masefield's The Midnight Folk [1927], T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone [1938], Ursula Moray Williams' Gobbolino the Witch's Cat [1942] and Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel, Prince of Cats [1955]) are generally malignant, as per tradition, and that tends to be the case into the 1970s, too: see for example the witches in Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick (1971) (soon to be an anime feature, by the way, under the title, Mary and the Witch's Flower) or Diana Wynne Jones's Wilkins' Tooth/Witch's Business (1973). The first good British witch I can think of is in Nina Beachcroft's Well Met by Witchlight (1972), and even she is paired off against a bad one.

In a slightly different category are the good comedy witches. Oddly, there doesn't seem to have been much influence in Britain from the magic-in-a-modern-suburban-setting style of American sitcom, as in Bewitched, The Addams Family or The Munsters (all 1964), where the comedy comes from the incongruity of the modern - unless the boarding-school setting of Jill Murphy's Worst Witch series (from 1974) counts as such. In Britain, naturally, we're all about the comic incompetence, as with Murphy's Mildred Hubble and (though to a far lesser extent) Helen Nicoll and Jan Pieńkowski's Meg and Mog (from 1972). Both Mildred and Meg count as good, I suppose?

As for New Age/Wicca-inspired good witches, I'm not really aware of anything in Britain until 1990, when we get Monica Furlong's Wise Child (if indeed Juniper really is a witch - I'm not sure she identifies as such) - although in New Zealand Margaret Mahy had begun as early as 1984, with the Carlisle witches in The Changeover.

This is pretty much a top-of-the-head list. I don't want a baptismal curse, so tell me - whom have I neglected? Can you beat Nina Beachcroft in 1971? I'm sure you can.
steepholm: (Default)
When did good witches start to appear in British children's literature? I don't mean wise women, good fairies, or anything of that kind, but outright, named-as-such witches.

In America there are the Oz books, of course, though they in any case seem something of an outlier: did Oz spawn other good Stateside witches in the decades immediately following? In the UK, though, mid-twentieth-century witches (e.g. in John Masefield's The Midnight Folk [1927], T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone [1938], Ursula Moray Williams' Gobbolino the Witch's Cat [1942] and Barbara Sleigh's Carbonel, Prince of Cats [1955]) are generally malignant, as per tradition, and that tends to be the case into the 1970s, too: see for example the witches in Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick (1971) (soon to be an anime feature, by the way, under the title, Mary and the Witch's Flower) or Diana Wynne Jones's Wilkins' Tooth/Witch's Business (1973). The first good British witch I can think of is in Nina Beachcroft's Well Met by Witchlight (1972), and even she is paired off against a bad one.

In a slightly different category are the good comedy witches. Oddly, there doesn't seem to have been much influence in Britain from the magic-in-a-modern-suburban-setting style of American sitcom, as in Bewitched, The Addams Family or The Munsters (all 1964), where the comedy comes from the incongruity of the modern - unless the boarding-school setting of Jill Murphy's Worst Witch series (from 1974) counts as such. In Britain, naturally, we're all about the comic incompetence, as with Murphy's Mildred Hubble and (though to a far lesser extent) Helen Nicoll and Jan Pieńkowski's Meg and Mog (from 1972). Both Mildred and Meg count as good, I suppose?

As for New Age/Wicca-inspired good witches, I'm not really aware of anything in Britain until 1990, when we get Monica Furlong's Wise Child (if indeed Juniper really is a witch - I'm not sure she identifies as such) - although in New Zealand Margaret Mahy had begun as early as 1984, with the Carlisle witches in The Changeover.

This is pretty much a top-of-the-head list. I don't want a baptismal curse, so tell me - whom have I neglected? Can you beat Nina Beachcroft in 1971? I'm sure you can.
steepholm: (tree_face)
I've always thought that people who write essays should take the word "essay"'s etymology more seriously. These aren't finished pieces, not the last word on any subject, but rather (to use a phrase of Bacon's) "knowledge broken". Montaigne, when he coined the term, was surely advertising that these were merely "attempts", after all. I like that attitude.

Something happened in the centuries following, though. You can catch a glimpse of it in the changing livery of the essay's prepositional outriders. In English, the earliest essays (e.g. Bacon's own, and John Florio's translations of Montaigne), tended to have the word "Of" at the beginning: "Of Praise", "Of Followers and Friends", "Of the Education of Children", and so on. "Of" was a subject marker, but one that suggesting that the writer was partaking of the subject without entirely clearing the plate.

In philosophical and scientific circles, at some point in the seventeenth century, the word "towards" seems to have become popular. Hence John Wilkins' "An essay towards a real character and a philosophical language" (1668), Berkeley's "An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision" (1709), or Bayes' "An Essay towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances" (1763). I approve this choice: it suggests that the essay isn't a finished form but a vector, a movement in the direction of knowledge, a baton passed to futurity. It sits well with the conception of knowledge as a collective enterprise in which no one person can hope to achieve all.

After a while, though, this was superseded in popularity by "on". I suppose Pope may have had something to do with popularising it; at any rate, we can cite "An Essay on Criticism" (1709) as an early locus classicus. There's something closed off and uninviting about this preposition, something that descends on its subject as if from a great height. It seems to fold its arms and say, "Beat that, if you can!" It's a preposition for a more individualistic age, perhaps, but I can't help thinking that it stimulates further argument, if at all, in an unhelpfully adversarial (or at least emulous) way.

So I say, let's bring back the tentative nature of the essay! Let's leave its loose threads hanging instead of tucking them into the hems! Let's detach, as far as possible, arguments from egos! And let's listen to Bacon's sage advice in The Advancement of Learning and apply it to the essay form:

Another error... is the over early and peremptory reduction of knowledge into arts and methods; from which time commonly sciences receive small or no augmentation. But as young men, when they knit and shape perfectly, do seldom grow to a further stature; so knowledge, while it is in aphorisms and observations, it is in growth: but when it once is comprehended in exact methods, it may perchance be further polished and illustrate and accommodated for use and practice; but it increaseth no more in bulk and substance.


I would write a polished conclusion at this point, but it seems against the spirit of the post.
steepholm: (Default)
I've always thought that people who write essays should take the word "essay"'s etymology more seriously. These aren't finished pieces, not the last word on any subject, but rather (to use a phrase of Bacon's) "knowledge broken". Montaigne, when he coined the term, was surely advertising that these were merely "attempts", after all. I like that attitude.

Something happened in the centuries following, though. You can catch a glimpse of it in the changing livery of the essay's prepositional outriders. In English, the earliest essays (e.g. Bacon's own, and John Florio's translations of Montaigne), tended to have the word "Of" at the beginning: "Of Praise", "Of Followers and Friends", "Of the Education of Children", and so on. "Of" was a subject marker, but one that suggesting that the writer was partaking of the subject without entirely clearing the plate.

In philosophical and scientific circles, at some point in the seventeenth century, the word "towards" seems to have become popular. Hence John Wilkins' "An essay towards a real character and a philosophical language" (1668), Berkeley's "An Essay towards a New Theory of Vision" (1709), or Bayes' "An Essay towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances" (1763). I approve this choice: it suggests that the essay isn't a finished form but a vector, a movement in the direction of knowledge, a baton passed to futurity. It sits well with the conception of knowledge as a collective enterprise in which no one person can hope to achieve all.

After a while, though, this was superseded in popularity by "on". I suppose Pope may have had something to do with popularising it; at any rate, we can cite "An Essay on Criticism" (1709) as an early locus classicus. There's something closed off and uninviting about this preposition, something that descends on its subject as if from a great height. It seems to fold its arms and say, "Beat that, if you can!" It's a preposition for a more individualistic age, perhaps, but I can't help thinking that it stimulates further argument, if at all, in an unhelpfully adversarial (or at least emulous) way.

So I say, let's bring back the tentative nature of the essay! Let's leave its loose threads hanging instead of tucking them into the hems! Let's detach, as far as possible, arguments from egos! And let's listen to Bacon's sage advice in The Advancement of Learning and apply it to the essay form:

Another error... is the over early and peremptory reduction of knowledge into arts and methods; from which time commonly sciences receive small or no augmentation. But as young men, when they knit and shape perfectly, do seldom grow to a further stature; so knowledge, while it is in aphorisms and observations, it is in growth: but when it once is comprehended in exact methods, it may perchance be further polished and illustrate and accommodated for use and practice; but it increaseth no more in bulk and substance.


I would write a polished conclusion at this point, but it seems against the spirit of the post.
steepholm: (tree_face)
I was kind of annoyed by a Film Programme discussion the other week with Stephen Woolley, the producer of The Crying Game. The thing that annoyed me was this discussion of the film's famous twist:

We started the campaign [not to reveal the ‘twist’] in the UK. I wrote a personal note to all the film critics when the film was released, and I think 99.9% of them kept it quiet. … That twist became part of the reason the Americans flocked to see the film. At the height of its popularity in New York I used to slip into the back of cinemas, just for the moment, just for the revealing moment, because the audience would go crazy. … Obviously, it did work as a sort of hook for the film.


Well, of course I've talked about that film here before, since (because I like it in other respects) it got me thinking a bit about twists in general, what they do and when and why they work, or not - and when they're plain objectifying. That discussion is here.

But Woolley said something else that was rather interesting, and tangential to the other discussion. They were talking about the positioning of the twist and its relation to genre. Many twists come at the end of the story - but in The Crying Game it comes somewhere round the halfway point. And the effect is to change the genre of the of film - in this case from a fairly hard-bitten thriller about the IRA into something quite different (what would you say the genre of The Crying Game is by the end?)

Woolley's comparison was with Pyscho - where the midway murder of the apparent main character signals the change from its being a crime thriller to a psycho-drama. Another example that springs to mind is, of course, Madoka Magica...

I feel there must be at least a few others - stories that that reveal that the audience (and possibly the characters) have been wrong-genre-savvy, and make them reevaluate everything that's happened through the prism of a different genre template, but that also give them the time to do so, rather than using the revelation as a final-scene pay-off. A twist in the tail is fine, but a twist in the torso is better. It's a model that appeals to me, anyway - but how common is it?

Examples, please!
steepholm: (Default)
I was kind of annoyed by a Film Programme discussion the other week with Stephen Woolley, the producer of The Crying Game. The thing that annoyed me was this discussion of the film's famous twist:

We started the campaign [not to reveal the ‘twist’] in the UK. I wrote a personal note to all the film critics when the film was released, and I think 99.9% of them kept it quiet. … That twist became part of the reason the Americans flocked to see the film. At the height of its popularity in New York I used to slip into the back of cinemas, just for the moment, just for the revealing moment, because the audience would go crazy. … Obviously, it did work as a sort of hook for the film.


Well, of course I've talked about that film here before, since (because I like it in other respects) it got me thinking a bit about twists in general, what they do and when and why they work, or not - and when they're plain objectifying. That discussion is here.

But Woolley said something else that was rather interesting, and tangential to the other discussion. They were talking about the positioning of the twist and its relation to genre. Many twists come at the end of the story - but in The Crying Game it comes somewhere round the halfway point. And the effect is to change the genre of the of film - in this case from a fairly hard-bitten thriller about the IRA into something quite different (what would you say the genre of The Crying Game is by the end?)

Woolley's comparison was with Pyscho - where the midway murder of the apparent main character signals the change from its being a crime thriller to a psycho-drama. Another example that springs to mind is, of course, Madoka Magica...

I feel there must be at least a few others - stories that that reveal that the audience (and possibly the characters) have been wrong-genre-savvy, and make them reevaluate everything that's happened through the prism of a different genre template, but that also give them the time to do so, rather than using the revelation as a final-scene pay-off. A twist in the tail is fine, but a twist in the torso is better. It's a model that appeals to me, anyway - but how common is it?

Examples, please!
steepholm: (tree_face)
I'd never heard of the English novelist Ouida, let alone her 1872 children's book, A Dog of Flanders, until the other day, when I mentioned to one of my Japanese conversation partners that I was about to go to Antwerp for the first time, and she brought it up.

This ultra-depressing tale of a destitute boy and his faithful but doomed hound, dying of exposure in Antwerp Cathedral, has I believe has been largely forgotten in the UK, and was never well known in Belgium; but it turns out it's regarded as a classic in Japan and South Korea, and has been televised in numerous versions in both countries. I'm always interested in this kind of "prophet without honour in his own country" survival: When Marnie Was There/Memories of Marnie is another notable instance (although in that case I had at least read the original off my own bat).

Anyway, the burghers of Antwerp were apparently taken by surprise when Korean and Japanese tourists turned up asking to be shown to the sites of the book's various events. Nothing daunted, they arranged for statues and plaques to be erected, so that the tourists would have something to photograph. But in which district of Antwerp was the majority of the story set? The novel never names it, and Ouida herself had only ever spent four hours in Antwerp. But how could literary pilgrimages be made, documented and uploaded to the cloud, without more specific information? The exasperated officials decided more or less arbitrarily that the novel was set in Hoboken, and erected another statue there to prove it. So now, when far-eastern tourists ask where these entirely fictional events really happened, the authorities are able to point them to the exact spot.

I will try to take a photograph when I'm there on Wednesday and Thursday, so as to have ocular proof.
steepholm: (Default)
I'd never heard of the English novelist Ouida, let alone her 1872 children's book, A Dog of Flanders, until the other day, when I mentioned to one of my Japanese conversation partners that I was about to go to Antwerp for the first time, and she brought it up.

This ultra-depressing tale of a destitute boy and his faithful but doomed hound, dying of exposure in Antwerp Cathedral, has I believe has been largely forgotten in the UK, and was never well known in Belgium; but it turns out it's regarded as a classic in Japan and South Korea, and has been televised in numerous versions in both countries. I'm always interested in this kind of "prophet without honour in his own country" survival: When Marnie Was There/Memories of Marnie is another notable instance (although in that case I had at least read the original off my own bat).

Anyway, the burghers of Antwerp were apparently taken by surprise when Korean and Japanese tourists turned up asking to be shown to the sites of the book's various events. Nothing daunted, they arranged for statues and plaques to be erected, so that the tourists would have something to photograph. But in which district of Antwerp was the majority of the story set? The novel never names it, and Ouida herself had only ever spent four hours in Antwerp. But how could literary pilgrimages be made, documented and uploaded to the cloud, without more specific information? The exasperated officials decided more or less arbitrarily that the novel was set in Hoboken, and erected another statue there to prove it. So now, when far-eastern tourists ask where these entirely fictional events really happened, the authorities are able to point them to the exact spot.

I will try to take a photograph when I'm there on Wednesday and Thursday, so as to have ocular proof.
steepholm: (tree_face)
Though justice against fate complain,
And plead the ancient rights in vain;
But those do hold or break
As men are strong or weak.

There was a catch in my voice as I read these lines to a hall of first-year students yesterday, in the course of a lecture comparing Marvell's "Horatian Ode" with Horace's Ode 1.2 (in translation, naturally). I'd been asked to give a couple of lectures on rewritings, and this was the first: next week, The Owl Service and "Math ap Mathonwy"!

If there's one thing you take away from this lecture, I said, or words to that effect, remember those words and take them to heart. Rights aren't out there sitting immutably in some Platonic realm: they're human creations, and have to be protected by humans. (Pace the Declaration of Independence, there's nothing self-evident or innate about them.)

A little off-topic, perhaps, but it was hard to avoid the contemporary resonances of both poems at a time when Europe and America appear to be in the process of being "cast... into another mould". Not that either Trump or Farage (or any of the various continental Faragistes) has a scintilla of the genius of Octavian or Cromwell, but I fear that in today's world they don't need it.

On a side note, though, I noticed for the first time that this poem does the same thing that Trump does in his speeches, shifting register and providing self-translation or additional comment as if for his deaf granny. The long couplets tend to use an elevated register, full of abstracts, personifications and Latinate words, which is supplemented by a demotic, everyday, occasionally cynical register in the short couplets. You can see it clearly in the lines quote above, but they're not unique. Take, for example:

’Tis madness to resist or blame
The force of angry Heaven’s flame;
And, if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due,

The first two lines are elevated, the second a kind of water-cooler village pump conversation, mulling over the recent news. Or, immediately following:

Who from his private gardens where
He liv’d reserved and austere,
As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot,

The first two lines are serious, the second two parenthetical whimsy. In a more muted form we find the same contrast here:

He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try;

Nor call’d the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bowed his comely head
Down as upon a bed.

Elevated language in the long lines, with the short lines devoted to a) a piece of witty black humour, or b) a homely simile, in both cases free of non-English words. Well, that's by the by, but I record it here as an aide-memoire.
steepholm: (Default)
Though justice against fate complain,
And plead the ancient rights in vain;
But those do hold or break
As men are strong or weak.

There was a catch in my voice as I read these lines to a hall of first-year students yesterday, in the course of a lecture comparing Marvell's "Horatian Ode" with Horace's Ode 1.2 (in translation, naturally). I'd been asked to give a couple of lectures on rewritings, and this was the first: next week, The Owl Service and "Math ap Mathonwy"!

If there's one thing you take away from this lecture, I said, or words to that effect, remember those words and take them to heart. Rights aren't out there sitting immutably in some Platonic realm: they're human creations, and have to be protected by humans. (Pace the Declaration of Independence, there's nothing self-evident or innate about them.)

A little off-topic, perhaps, but it was hard to avoid the contemporary resonances of both poems at a time when Europe and America appear to be in the process of being "cast... into another mould". Not that either Trump or Farage (or any of the various continental Faragistes) has a scintilla of the genius of Octavian or Cromwell, but I fear that in today's world they don't need it.

On a side note, though, I noticed for the first time that this poem does the same thing that Trump does in his speeches, shifting register and providing self-translation or additional comment as if for his deaf granny. The long couplets tend to use an elevated register, full of abstracts, personifications and Latinate words, which is supplemented by a demotic, everyday, occasionally cynical register in the short couplets. You can see it clearly in the lines quote above, but they're not unique. Take, for example:

’Tis madness to resist or blame
The force of angry Heaven’s flame;
And, if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due,

The first two lines are elevated, the second a kind of water-cooler village pump conversation, mulling over the recent news. Or, immediately following:

Who from his private gardens where
He liv’d reserved and austere,
As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot,

The first two lines are serious, the second two parenthetical whimsy. In a more muted form we find the same contrast here:

He nothing common did or mean
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
The axe’s edge did try;

Nor call’d the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bowed his comely head
Down as upon a bed.

Elevated language in the long lines, with the short lines devoted to a) a piece of witty black humour, or b) a homely simile, in both cases free of non-English words. Well, that's by the by, but I record it here as an aide-memoire.
steepholm: (tree_face)
Does anyone today use Barthes' five 'codes' (hermeneutic, proairetic, semantic, symbolic and cultural) except in the context of teaching Barthes' ideas?

I mean, I see (for example) Bakhtin's concepts and terminology being used all the time, but I can't remember the last time I saw an essay that drew on those codes because the writer thought they were the most helpful way of understanding a text. But perhaps I'm just living in a non-Barthesian bubble?
steepholm: (Default)
Does anyone today use Barthes' five 'codes' (hermeneutic, proairetic, semantic, symbolic and cultural) except in the context of teaching Barthes' ideas?

I mean, I see (for example) Bakhtin's concepts and terminology being used all the time, but I can't remember the last time I saw an essay that drew on those codes because the writer thought they were the most helpful way of understanding a text. But perhaps I'm just living in a non-Barthesian bubble?
steepholm: (tree_face)
My friend Marie was kind enough to invite me and a plus-one to the preview of the Strange Worlds exhibition on Angela Carter which she's curated at the RWA, so last night I went along with my other friend (I do have more than two friends, I hasten to disambiguate), Htay. It's a truly fabulous exhibition, and I highly recommend it if you have more than a passing interest in that old Bristolian, or in unsettling art generally. I saw quite a few of my old colleagues and students too, which was nice.

While I was there, I was buttonholed by a researcher doing a survey on reactions to the exhibition, which I happily gave. At the end there was the usual information about age, race, etc., for their equality stats, and as usual under "gender" they had "Male", "Female" and "Transgender" as three separate and mutually exclusive options - language which mirrors the Equality Act (2010), which habitually refers to "men, women and transgender people" as if there were no possible intersection between these categories.

This is annoying in several related ways. First, it forces trans people to choose whether to erase their gender or the fact that they are trans. Given that choice, I imagine that most (like me) answer according to their gender; but if they want the information for some legitimate statistical reason, the information on the number of trans people will inevitably be rendered inaccurate in consequence. At an art exhibition this is probably of no great moment; but in other contexts it could be used as an excuse for not providing services for trans people because we're too few in number.

But also, it's just such a clunking category error: a bit like saying, "Which is your favourite kind of car? Fiats, BMWs or blue ones?" Trans is not a gender, after all, but a fact about the relation of one's gender to one's body. Logically, they should have boxes marked "trans" and "cis" if they want to collect that information - but that of course would be horribly oppressive to cis people...
steepholm: (Default)
My friend Marie was kind enough to invite me and a plus-one to the preview of the Strange Worlds exhibition on Angela Carter which she's curated at the RWA, so last night I went along with my other friend (I do have more than two friends, I hasten to disambiguate), Htay. It's a truly fabulous exhibition, and I highly recommend it if you have more than a passing interest in that old Bristolian, or in unsettling art generally. I saw quite a few of my old colleagues and students too, which was nice.

While I was there, I was buttonholed by a researcher doing a survey on reactions to the exhibition, which I happily gave. At the end there was the usual information about age, race, etc., for their equality stats, and as usual under "gender" they had "Male", "Female" and "Transgender" as three separate and mutually exclusive options - language which mirrors the Equality Act (2010), which habitually refers to "men, women and transgender people" as if there were no possible intersection between these categories.

This is annoying in several related ways. First, it forces trans people to choose whether to erase their gender or the fact that they are trans. Given that choice, I imagine that most (like me) answer according to their gender; but if they want the information for some legitimate statistical reason, the information on the number of trans people will inevitably be rendered inaccurate in consequence. At an art exhibition this is probably of no great moment; but in other contexts it could be used as an excuse for not providing services for trans people because we're too few in number.

But also, it's just such a clunking category error: a bit like saying, "Which is your favourite kind of car? Fiats, BMWs or blue ones?" Trans is not a gender, after all, but a fact about the relation of one's gender to one's body. Logically, they should have boxes marked "trans" and "cis" if they want to collect that information - but that of course would be horribly oppressive to cis people...
steepholm: (tree_face)
Well, I really enjoyed Makoto Shinkai's Your Name (Kimi no na ha) - the anime film that's taken Japan by storm this summer. I watched it at the local multiplex, but I think it's got a limited release more generally, and I highly recommend it as a film that is a) beautiful, b) funny, c) clever, d) touching. There's no doubt it deserves all its plaudits. Some of the scenes were stunning; there was a great running gag about breast-fondling; and I don't think I'll easily forget how to make sake from rice and spit.

And yet... I don't know, I was expecting to be more moved by it. Perhaps my expectations were too high (I'd been excited for weeks); perhaps the bottle of Wiper and True IPA I took into the cinema had its effect; perhaps I was in the wrong mood, although I don't think so. I cry easily at films, and at much worse ones than this, but Your Name left my ducts untapped despite having just the sort of plot that should have had me bawling. I've been thinking about it since with pleasure, but largely intellectual pleasure, mixed with a slight sense of irritation. I wonder why?

The feeling is rather reminiscent of the one I tend to get from the novels of Neil Gaiman. When reading, say, Coraline or The Ocean at the End of the Lane or The Graveyard Book I feel, here is someone who is thoroughly steeped in fantasy convention, has all the tools well within his command, and knows exactly how to use them. A craftsman, in fact, and a good one - but still, there's something missing that makes my admiration fall short of love. When I read Gaiman, I involuntarily switch into a mode somewhere between writer and critic (rather than reader), noticing his techniques, his devices, his references, and quite unable to keep my head below water. I like his work, but can't bring myself to love it; many worse writers engage me more.

Probably the fault is in myself rather than these stars, but if I were to turn this into a kind of back-handed compliment, I'd say that Gaiman (at least in the books I've read) has stayed too far within his own safety zone, doing the things he knows he can do well. Because he can do many things well, his safety zone is very large - so large, in fact, that it's in danger of turning into a pocket universe from which he can't escape.

But escape he must.
steepholm: (Default)
Well, I really enjoyed Makoto Shinkai's Your Name (Kimi no na ha) - the anime film that's taken Japan by storm this summer. I watched it at the local multiplex, but I think it's got a limited release more generally, and I highly recommend it as a film that is a) beautiful, b) funny, c) clever, d) touching. There's no doubt it deserves all its plaudits. Some of the scenes were stunning; there was a great running gag about breast-fondling; and I don't think I'll easily forget how to make sake from rice and spit.

And yet... I don't know, I was expecting to be more moved by it. Perhaps my expectations were too high (I'd been excited for weeks); perhaps the bottle of Wiper and True IPA I took into the cinema had its effect; perhaps I was in the wrong mood, although I don't think so. I cry easily at films, and at much worse ones than this, but Your Name left my ducts untapped despite having just the sort of plot that should have had me bawling. I've been thinking about it since with pleasure, but largely intellectual pleasure, mixed with a slight sense of irritation. I wonder why?

The feeling is rather reminiscent of the one I tend to get from the novels of Neil Gaiman. When reading, say, Coraline or The Ocean at the End of the Lane or The Graveyard Book I feel, here is someone who is thoroughly steeped in fantasy convention, has all the tools well within his command, and knows exactly how to use them. A craftsman, in fact, and a good one - but still, there's something missing that makes my admiration fall short of love. When I read Gaiman, I involuntarily switch into a mode somewhere between writer and critic (rather than reader), noticing his techniques, his devices, his references, and quite unable to keep my head below water. I like his work, but can't bring myself to love it; many worse writers engage me more.

Probably the fault is in myself rather than these stars, but if I were to turn this into a kind of back-handed compliment, I'd say that Gaiman (at least in the books I've read) has stayed too far within his own safety zone, doing the things he knows he can do well. Because he can do many things well, his safety zone is very large - so large, in fact, that it's in danger of turning into a pocket universe from which he can't escape.

But escape he must.
steepholm: (tree_face)
How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times) who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.


Thus Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penniless (1592), a passage familiar to many because it appears to refer to 1 Henry VI, and thus constitutes one of the earliest contemporary references to Shakespeare's work. I came across it again recently in that excellent book, Comeuppance, and was suddenly struck by Nashe's dodgy arithmetic. In 1592 John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, had been in his grave not for 200 years, nor even for 150, but for just 139. Of course it suits Nashe's rhetorical point to stretch it a bit, but still - could one get away today with saying that Henry Fox Talbot (who died exactly 139 years ago, in 1877) had been in his grave for two hundred years? ("How would it have joyed him to see so many people taking photos!") I don't think so. So, why one Talbot and not the other? Does it say something about a change in education or in historical sensibility, or just about Nashe's style as a controversialist?

While I'm on Nashe, I recently wrote a piece in which I cited without too much qualification the standard line that the historical novel began with Walter Scott's Waverley. But even as I wrote it, I was bothered by the counterexample of The Unfortunate Traveller, which is set during the reign of Henry VIII and has a fictional protagonist, Jack Wilton, who (like Edward Waverley) rubs shoulders with historical figures, notably the Earl of Surrey. Why isn't that hailed as "the first historical novel"? I find it hard to come up with a line of argument that doesn't smack of special pleading.
steepholm: (Default)
How would it have joyed brave Talbot, the terror of the French, to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times) who in the tragedian that represents his person imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.


Thus Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penniless (1592), a passage familiar to many because it appears to refer to 1 Henry VI, and thus constitutes one of the earliest contemporary references to Shakespeare's work. I came across it again recently in that excellent book, Comeuppance, and was suddenly struck by Nashe's dodgy arithmetic. In 1592 John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, had been in his grave not for 200 years, nor even for 150, but for just 139. Of course it suits Nashe's rhetorical point to stretch it a bit, but still - could one get away today with saying that Henry Fox Talbot (who died exactly 139 years ago, in 1877) had been in his grave for two hundred years? ("How would it have joyed him to see so many people taking photos!") I don't think so. So, why one Talbot and not the other? Does it say something about a change in education or in historical sensibility, or just about Nashe's style as a controversialist?

While I'm on Nashe, I recently wrote a piece in which I cited without too much qualification the standard line that the historical novel began with Walter Scott's Waverley. But even as I wrote it, I was bothered by the counterexample of The Unfortunate Traveller, which is set during the reign of Henry VIII and has a fictional protagonist, Jack Wilton, who (like Edward Waverley) rubs shoulders with historical figures, notably the Earl of Surrey. Why isn't that hailed as "the first historical novel"? I find it hard to come up with a line of argument that doesn't smack of special pleading.
steepholm: (tree_face)
Today is my ten years anniversary of being on LJ/DW. Looking back, I see that my first ever entry was about someone who'd covered some Beatles songs in Cornish. There's a now-broken link to the site. "Ah, so many links have been broken!" I sigh, more or less automatically. But as many new ones have been forged, and reforged, through being on social media. I'm grateful to everyone who's been here (both online and off) in the last decade. It's definitely enriched my life.

On the other hand, I suppose I have to admit:

Number of novels published in the decade before I took up LJ - 6.
Number of novels published in the decade since I took up LJ - 0.

Correlation is not causation, though, and there were other things going on in my life that got in the way of novelling. I officially transitioned 5 years ago last month, almost exactly halfway through my LJ career to date, and of course a move like that doesn't come out of the blue; it was preceded by years of anguish and drama of a kind that I had and have no wish to splurge abroad. Still, even if social media is considered as a symptom of my spiritual condition rather than a cause, it's a striking statistic.

Or perhaps writing novels in the first place was the symptom? One of its functions was certainly to act as a kind of safety valve (a role currently played by learning Japanese), a place I could go to when other things became a bit grim. And it gave me opportunities for expression otherwise denied me: it's no coincidence that all my first-person characters were female.

Anyway, taken as a whole, I think it's worth celebrating these ten years, and in that spirit I made an impulse buy yesterday, at a children's-book art exhibition. It's Paul Howard's cover art for the 2008 edition of Tom's Midnight Garden, which I've always liked but is far more beautiful without the writing and bar codes. It's in pastels, and has a depth in reality that my crappy camera struggles to convey. I particularly like the combination of wonder and forlorn vulnerability in Tom, dwarfed as he is in this wider perspective by the house and its trees. (It would be idle to deny that I also like his pyjamas.)

Tom's Midnight Garden

book cover


I'm embarrassed to say how much it cost, but arguably I couldn't afford it.
steepholm: (Default)
Today is my ten years anniversary of being on LJ/DW. Looking back, I see that my first ever entry was about someone who'd covered some Beatles songs in Cornish. There's a now-broken link to the site. "Ah, so many links have been broken!" I sigh, more or less automatically. But as many new ones have been forged, and reforged, through being on social media. I'm grateful to everyone who's been here (both online and off) in the last decade. It's definitely enriched my life.

On the other hand, I suppose I have to admit:

Number of novels published in the decade before I took up LJ - 6.
Number of novels published in the decade since I took up LJ - 0.

Correlation is not of course causation, though, and there were other things going on in my life that got in the way of novelling. I officially transitioned 5 years ago last month, almost exactly halfway through my LJ career to date, and of course a move like that doesn't come out of the blue; it was preceded by years of anguish and drama of a kind that I had and have no wish to splurge abroad. Still, even if social media is considered as a symptom of my spiritual condition rather than a cause, it's a striking statistic.

Or perhaps writing novels in the first place was the symptom? One of its functions was certainly to act as a kind of safety valve (a role currently played by learning Japanese), a place I could go to when other things became a bit grim. And it gave me opportunities for expression otherwise denied me: it's no coincidence that all my first-person characters were female.

Anyway, taken as a whole, I think it's worth celebrating these ten years, and in that spirit I made an impulse buy yesterday, at a children's-book art exhibition. It's Paul Howard's cover art for the 2008 edition of Tom's Midnight Garden, which I've always liked but is far more beautiful without the writing and bar codes. It's in pastels, and has a depth in reality that my crappy camera struggles to convey. I particularly like the combination of wonder and forlorn vulnerability in Tom, dwarfed as he is in this wider perspective by the house and its trees. (It would be idle to deny that I also like his pyjamas.)

Tom's Midnight Garden

book cover


I'm embarrassed to say how much it cost, but arguably I couldn't afford it.

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