Sunday, 19 January 2014

Short Story Sunday - Telling Tales with STW

I'm not sure if  a Gainsborough portrait of Arminella Blount
in the character actually exists, so here's his painting of
his daughters chasing a butterfly.
This week a short story much more to my taste – A View of Exmoor, by Sylvia Townsend Warner, whose work I adore. Here the Finch family, dressed in their best, are off to a wedding in Devon, for Mrs Finch’s niece, Arminella Blount, is getting married. They make, says STW, a very ‘creditable’ contribution. Returning home, they’re still clad in their glad-rags: Mrs Finch in green moirĂ©, Mr Finch is his ‘black-and-grey’,  12-year-old Arden looking pale and ‘owl-eyed’ in his Eton suit (he’s had measles), and Cordelia and Clara in their bridesmaids’ dresses ‘copied from the Gainsborough portrait of an earlier Arminella Blount in the character of Flora’. They also have Arminella’s piping bullfinch and the music box needed to continue its education, as well as the bridesmaids’ bouquets.

It was born in on Mr Finch that other travellers along the main road were noticing his car and its contents more than they needed to, and this impression was confirmed when the passengers in two successive charabancs cheered and waved. Mr Finch, the soul of consideration, turned in to a side road to save his wife and daughter the embarrassment of these public acclamations.

Actually, I suspect it is Mr Finch who is embarrassed by his family, and they’re about to get a whole lot more noticeable. He can’t find the map, and has no idea where he is, but he drives on and on across Exmoor, until they stop to look at the view and have a picnic. At this point Mrs Finch recounts a strange and seemingly pointless tale of Aunt Harriet’s ‘inexplicable’ boots, spotted by Aunt Harriet and her brother when they were children in an empty, open, horse-drawn cab on Exmoor. The duo continued their walk, and saw another pair of boots, on the ground by a sulky-looking man and a crying woman, who snatched up those boots, ran back to the cab, and off it went, leaving the man behind. The people were both wearing boots, and the strangest thing of all, says Mrs Finch, was that the woman had no hat. 
A bullfinch - in case you don't know what they look like!
Explanations for this odd story keep everyone happy and entertained, and things seem more or less normal – but this is STW, and nothing is ever normal! Arden is playing tunes on the bars of the bullfinch’s cage when the door flips open and the bird flies out, and they all rush around trying to catch it. Arden falls out of a tree and makes his nose bleed, and they all get more and more dishevelled. Eventually they heave the music box out of the car, hoping that if the escapee hears the music he will come back.

The music box weighed about fifty pounds. It was contained in an ebony case that looked like a baby’s coffin, and at every movement it emitted reproachful chords. On one side it had a handle; on the other side, the handle had fallen off, and by the time the Finches had got the box out of the car, they were flushed and breathless. His groans mingling with the reproachful chords, Mr Finch, staggered up the lane in pursuit of the bullfinch, with the music box in his arms.

Isn’t that a wonderful image? I just love the description of the music box, which is not one of the flimsy, pretty, little trinkets we know today. No, this is a solid affair (my maths isn’t good, but I reckon it’s roughly as heavy as 25 bags of sugar) and its colour and shape, and the ghostly noises it produces (playing chords of its own accord) make it seem rather sinister. But Mr Finch is ‘devoted’ to music boxes – which makes him sound a lot less conventional than he’d have his believe. I know this is set in 1936 (and written in 1948), but even then I’ll bet there weren’t too many family men with a thing for music boxes!

So, while his wife and children rush off, still searching for the missing bird, takes a moment’s ‘repose’, sits on the ground, plays some music, and lights a cigar. Then, he realises they have company - a young man whose ‘bare ruined legs and rucksack suggested that he was on a walking tour’. And at that moment:

Around the bend of the lane came two replicas, in rather bad condition, of Gainsborough’s well-known portrait of Arminella Blount in the character of Flora, a cadaverous small boy draped in a bloodstained Indian shawl, and a middle-aged lady dressed in the height of fashion who carried a bird cage.

The young man on a walking tour continues his journey, skirting nervously round this apparition, and Mr Finch is mortified that his family, away from his ‘supervision’, have once again made themselves conspicuous. He thinks his wife should have explained the situation to the young man. But she says:

He looked so hot and careworn, and I expect he only gets a fortnight’s holiday all the year through. Why should I spoil it for him? Why shouldn’t he have something to look back on in his old age?

That made me smile, and I thought she’s absolutely right. By saying nothing she’s given something to that young man that he’ll remember for ever more, and I could imagine him at some stage in the future telling his children and grandchildren, and everyone sitting around trying to make sense of the mystery, using their imagination to tell stories which create possible explanations… Murder perhaps, madness, ancient rituals being re-enacted. And would anyone have believed the truth if they’d heard it?

And I thought back to Mrs Finch’s story about Aunt Harriet’s boot, where everyone had their own idea about what might have happened, because nothing is ever quite as it seems. So there are issues here about truth and reality, just as there are in many of the other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, but I also see this as a real celebration of the power of storytelling, linking up with old oral traditions.
I like Jeanne Elizabeth Chaudet's picture Young Girl
with a Birdcage. It was painted in the late 18thC,
and her career overlapped Gainsborough, so the
 cage may  be similar to the one in the story.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Poirot's First Case

Poirot at work: Actor David Suchet as /Hercule Poirot
in the Chanel 4 TV series.
I sat and enjoyed a Poirot-fest over the weekend, thanks to ITV3, which screened enough back to back episodes to satisfy the most die-hard addict. So having immersed myself in the television version and watched the ever-wonderful David Suchet, I decided it was time to go back to basics, and I dug out a copy of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the very first Poirot story, published in 1916. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction, and I’d forgotten how good Agatha Christie can be – she’s not called the Queen of Crime for nothing.

Here we meet Hercule Poirot for the first time, and I realised that David Suchet’s interpretation of the little Belgian detective really is quite extraordinary. I suppose it helps that the two men are not too dissimilar physically - I never could believe wholeheartedly in Peter Ustinov’s Poirot, because he was too big and looked all wrong. But it’s not just appearances. David Suchet has acquired all Poirot’s mannerisms, his fussiness, his precision, his intelligence, the way he walks and everything, without ever tipping over into caricature. He makes Poirot seem very human because he brings warmth and humour to the character, and he inhabits the role rather than merely acting it.

First edition of Agatha Christie's
first Poirot novel.
Now normally I read a book first, then watch the film or TV programme (and if I really like something I rarely watch it on screen, because I’m scared it will spoil my enjoyment of the book). But with Agatha Christie it’s the other way round. I honestly cannot remember which books I’ve read in the past, and my view of the stories and characters has been shaped by movies, television shows and radio versions of her work. So I found it interesting to read Christie’s own description of her creation, and I was surprised that he and Hastings both appear here fully shaped: they are as they are, and I don’t think either of them changed or evolved in the years that followed. 

In The Mysterious Affair at Styles Poirot is a Belgian refugee, living with a group of his countrymen in the village of St Mary Styles, thanks to a helping hand from elderly Emily Inglethorp, who lives in nearby Styles Court.  And staying at Styles Court while he recovers from a war wound is Lt Arthur Hastings (not yet a captain), a friend of the family, who also knows Poirot.

So when wealthy Mrs Inglethorp (formerly Mrs Cavendish) dies from strychnine poisoning Hastings calls upon Poitrot for help. Prime suspect is Emily’s new husband, Alfred Inglethorp, who is 20 years her junior, has a strange bushy black beard and wears patent shoes every day (so we know he’s a bounder!). But he has a cast iron alibi, so it can’t be him… Or can it? And why does everyone else’s behaviour seem so odd?

Take Hastings’ friend John for instance, the stepson of the murdered woman from her previous marriage (she was widowed). He is strapped for cash and is having some kind of liaison with a neighbouring farmer’s wife; his beautiful wife Mary is extremely friendly with a German doctor who is the world’s top toxicologist. John’s younger brother Lawrence studied medicine and knows about drugs and poisons, and so does orphaned Cynthia, who lives with the family and works in a pharmacy.

Then there is Emily’s companion Evie, who fell out with her mistress after warning her against Mr Inglethorp… but can her intense hatred of the man be genuine? No-one, it seems, is telling the whole truth, and everyone has hidden secrets.

A modern edition of the book.
Mystery surrounds the dead woman’s will, a locked room and a document case which is broken open. And there’s a fragment of burnt paper among the ashes in the fireplace, a strange strand of green thread, a broken coffee cup, hot chocolate dregs and a damp patch on the carpet, which all have to be considered. Are any of these things important? ~Or none of them? Two officers from Scotland Yard arrive to lliok for answers, and we get our first glimpse of Inspector Japp, looking smaller, thinner and much less important than I visualised, but it is Poirot, of course, who manages to unravel the various strands of the mystery and unmask the killer.

We learn from Hastings, who narrates the tale, that Poirot is a world-famous Belgian detective, now retired (so how old is he meant to be, I wonder?).  And we are told:

Poirot was an extraordinary looking little man. He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.

Throughout the novel we see evidence of his fussiness and neatness, as he straightens ornaments and rearranges things. But his obsessive attention to detail is what makes him such a good detective, for it enables him to look for patterns, and to pick out the blips, the small things that don’t quite fit the picture and are overlooked by everyone else, but make him think, and think again. He’s very logical, and believes in reasoning things out, so looks at the clues, and draws conclusions from what he sees, but he also uses psychology to try and work out who could be a killer, and why they would commit murder. I think his need to see justice done is part of that urge he has for everything to be neat and tidy: he wants to put the world to rights. And he has a very strong sense of right and wrong.

I was rather shocked that in his efforts to bring criminals to justice he can be very manipulative, and quite cruel, especially in the denouement, when he plays with the characters as a cat plays with a mouse, before revealing what has happened. He even lets a man he knows is innocent stand trial for the murder, partly to lull the real culprit into a false sense of security, and partly to effect a reconciliation between husband and wife. It may be a cruel trick to play, and Poirot makes an unlikely Cupid, but he is a great believer in love, which is rather endearing.

As you can probably tell, I really enjoyed The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the twists and turns of the plot kept me turning the pages to find out what happens. I have to say I thought the TV version was pretty true to the book. There were some differences, but nothing which materially alters Christie’s creation. 
Agatha Christie, the Queen of Crime.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Short Story Sunday: The Lottery

Oh, this was absolutely horrid and I hated it, hated it, hated it. Shirley Jackson may be highly esteemed by many of you, and she may be an excellent writer, but that doesn’t mean I have to like her. And if her other work is any way similar to The Lottery then I don’t want to read it. All in all, I found it deeply disturbing and unsettling. There are other pieces in The Persephone Book of Short Stories which I disliked, but I don’t think I felt quite as strongly about them as I did about this, and it is probably a failing on my part. All I can say is that this author is not for me.

It all starts off innocently enough. It’s a clear, sunny day in a small village, and it’s the day of the traditional lottery, when everyone gathers together and takes a slip of paper from a battered old box. The slips are blank, but one has a black spot on it… So someone is selected for something… Initially it’s hard to see where this is leading. There’s a festive mood, and everyone is dressed in their best, and the word ‘lottery’ makes one think of games, and raffles, and sweepstakes, and lucky winners. But a lottery is a game of chance, where the outcome is not necessarily happy. And the boys have filled their pockets with stones, which makes you wonder what is to happen.

Whether or not I like her (and I’ve already said I don’t), Jackson is a clever writer who builds the tension, line by line, word by word, and the feeling of menace gets heavier and heavier as the story progresses. Even so, I was shocked at the spine-chilling ending, which seems all the more horrendous when set against the ordinariness of the day, and the homely activities people have been engaged in.  Why do the villagers go along with this bizarre ritual? They must know it’s wrong, and other places have given up the old ways, but here they stick to the past just as they’ve always done. I suppose it’s a case of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.

And I began to wonder just how random the choice of victim actually was, or whether there was an element of manipulation, or sleight of hand, ensuring that outsiders, trouble-makers or those that question are removed from society. This was published in 1948 – a few years later and I might have given more consideration to that thought, and seen the story as an allegory for the McCarthy ‘witch hunts’ against Communism. Perhaps Jackson was inspired by the awful events in Nazi Germany, where ordinary people were happy to point fingers of accusation against others, or to become complicit in the atrocities through their silence.

But there seems to be something more ancient here, connected with those old tales about scapegoats and sacrificial victims (willing or unwilling) whose fate ensures the well-being of others for another year. 

Friday, 10 January 2014

Meeting the Moomins...

One grey morning the first snow began to fall in the Valley of the Moomins. It fell softly and quietly, and in a few hours everything was white.

Moomintroll stood on his doorstep and watched the world nestle beneath its winter blanket. ‘Tonight,’ he thought, ‘We shall settle down for our long winter’s sleep.’ (All Moomintrolls go to sleep about November. This is a good idea, too, if you don’t like the cold and the log winter darkness.

Then family, and all their friends and acquaintances, prepare for winter. They eat a meal of pine-needles, which don’t taste very nice, but you need a tummy full of pine-needles if you’re going to sleep through winter, and they clean their teeth, and the doors and shutters are closed, and a mosquito net hung over the chandelier so it won’t get dusty, and off they all go to bed.

Isn’t that just enchanting? And don’t you sometimes think it would be so nice to dream through the worst weather, and wake in the spring when everything is new and fresh and bursting with energy? The quote above, for those who don’t know, is the start of Finn Family Moomintroll, the classic children’s tale by Finnish writer Tove Jansson. Given my love of children’s books, and the fact that I adore Jansson’s other work, I cannot understand why the Moomins have passed me by – until now! And there are other Moomin stories which I simply must read as well.

The best children’s books always seem to blend the extraordinary and the ordinary in such a seamless way that you believe wholeheartedly in what is happening, however strange the characters and story may be, and that’s very much the case with Finn Family Moomintroll. It’s a kind of fairy tale, where peculiar little creatures have odd adventures, but always behave in a way we recognise. And it’s the little, homely touches, like the tooth cleaning, that bring everything to life (it’s the same with The Hobbit, where poor Bilbo, setting off with the Dwarves on the adventure of a lifetime, forgets his pocket handkerchief, which makes everything seem so normal somehow).

Anyway, in Jansson’s book the Moomins, and all their friends and acquaintances, are woken in the spring by the call of the first cuckoo (rather hoarse, because it’s still early in the spring, as well as being in the morning - four o’clock to be precise). As the world wakes around them, Moomintroll, Snufkin and Sniff climb a mountain, and at the top they find a tall, black, hat (like a top hat), so they take it home, intending to give it to Moominpappa, but it’s too big for him, so they turn it upside down and use it as a waste-paper basket. However, it’s the Hobgoblin’s Hat, and if something lies long enough in the Hobgoblin’s Hat it begins to change into something quite different…  
Moomintroll and Snufkin. The pictures have all
come out blurry - don't know, because camera is
on same setting as usual.
Eggshells turn into soft, woolly, white clouds, like little pillows, which Moomintroll and his friends ride around on. Seawater is transformed into raspberry juice; words in a Dictionary of Outlandish Words placed on top of the hat come crawling out of the pages, and the fearsome Ant-lion, lured into it by a trick, becomes a sad little hedgehog.

But there are sinister aspects to the magic. When Moomintroll hides beneath the hat he is turned into a very strange animal indeed:

All his fat parts had become thin, and everything that had been small was big. And everything that was small had grown big. And the strangest thing about it was that he himself didn’t realise what was the matter.  

None of his friends recognise him but, thinking it is a new game, he plays along, until he finally understands what has happened. By that stage, not unnaturally, he is very frightened, and very upset, so they call Moominmamma, who knows him, and he is changed back into his true self, and she tells him: “You see, I shall always know you whatever happens.” It’s one of the moments when the book stops being ‘just’ a children’s story, and steps up a gear. There are echoes here of old folk tales, like the Frog Prince, or Beauty and the Beast, and it made me think about the nature of identity, and how appearances can be deceptive, and whether anyone really does know anyone else – and whether we even know ourselves.
Moomintroll (second left) after the hat has bewitched
him  - would you recognise him?
 There’s a similar moment when the Hemulen is in despair because his stamp collection is complete – there isn’t a stamp or an error that he hasn’t collected, and he doesn’t know what to do. But Moomintroll understands. “You aren’t a collector any more, you’re only an owner, and that isn’t nearly so much fun,” he says. Owning things carries its own responsibilities, but the Hemulen has lost his sense of purpose, and the enjoyment and enthusiasm he had previously. And that set me off thinking about the differences between owning things, and collecting them – and what you do once you have achieved your goal.

In that respect, Finn Family Moomintroll is a bit like the Pooh stories, and Wind in the Willows, because you can read it and enjoy it as a wonderful story with unforgettable characters, but at the same time you can recognise higher truths, and read all kinds of ideas into it, and make the characters represent all kinds of people dealing with life in their own particular way. 
Does it fit? Moominpappa trying on the Hobgoblin's Hat.
I think Jansson poured much of herself and her experiences into this, just as she did with her other work. It may be a children’s fairy tale, but it seems to be very much about her world, and her responses to it. Descriptions of nature, and weather, and the natural world, which feature so strongly elsewhere, are here too, and that sense of place, and of ‘one-ness’ with place. The Moomin books were written earlier than the novels and short stories, and some of the events here can be found in greater depth elsewhere, precursors, perhaps, of more powerful pieces.

For example, the preparations made by the Moomins, their friends and acquaintances before their hibernation, are similar to the tasks carried out when the Janssons’ island summer house is shut up for the winter, and the family return home to the mainland for winter. And the scary storm encountered by the Moomins when they sail away for a picnic is Sophia’s storm from The Summer Book, with embellishments that make it even more scary.

There’s a host of characters, and storylines, which I haven’t mentioned, but I loved this, and all I can say is that if, like me, you’ve never read the Moomoins, please remedy the situation now – go and hunt out one of the books. I don’t know if they are all this good, but I’m willing to bet they are.

Bob and Thingumy comfort Moomintroll after Snufkin
leaves to go travelling.
Oh, and a word about the illustrations, drawn by Jansson, who was an artist long before she became an author. These black and white drawings capture moments from the story just perfectly, and so they should, because this is the way Jansson saw her creations.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Beautiful Bookmarks!

Woohoo people, I have proper bookmarks!!! A friend who loves books and reading as much as I do bought them for me for Christmas. She noticed that I tend to mark my place when I'm reading with old bus tickets, train tickets, letters, bills, shopping lists and anything else that comes to hand. I've even been known to bend the corners over, which makes most people throw their hands up in horror. So my friend decided the time had come for me to be to be organised, and she got me six dear little double-sided magnetic bookmarks, all with a lovely 'peace and tranquility' picture. I think my favourite is the picture of the pebbles balanced on top of each other. I always do that on beaches - I love trying to create my own 'natural' mini-sculptures.
And in addition there were six beautiful postcards, each with a picture inspired by a classic book, made from letters forming quotes from the book. There is 1984, Alice in Wonderland, and  Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven.
 Then there is Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and Sherlock Holmes.
I just love that whale, and the pipe, but they are are all really cleverly done, and I can use them as bookmarks as well, or pin them on my notice board. However, my absolute favourite has to be the cup and saucer, symbolising the Mad Hatter's Tea Party. Around the rim are the words: 'You should learn not to make personal remarks,' Alice said with some severity: 'it's very rude.' On the whole I think that's very sound advice, and it occurs to me that Alice would have got along very well with Thumper's mother - if you remember her advice was pretty similar, for she said:"If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all."

I think it was a really nice, thoughtful gift, and I shall make sure my bookmarks get lots of use!