Olivetti Lettera 32

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Olivetti Lettera 32, designed by Marcello Nizzoli in 1963

Olivetti Lettera 32, designed by Marcello Nizzoli in 1963

A Happy New Year to everyone! This is my one hundredth post and I thought I’d follow tradition by talking about what Santa brought me for Christmas.

When I was eight years old, and a precocious little sod,  I filled a couple of reporter’s notebooks from W. H. Smiths with a ‘novel’. My dad was impressed enough to buy me my first typewriter. He later regretted this because it meant that the noise of the office now followed him home as I banged out an endless litany of juvenilia – three novels rejected by Puffin (bastards), a short story read out on Radio Leeds and finally, seven issues of various SF fanzines – ending with 101 Ballooning Adventures That Thrilled the World (don’t ask). What I didn’t realise at the time was that the typewriter was an Olivetti Lettera 32, an Italian thing of beauty designed by Marcello Nizzoli that was later to become a style icon and emblematic of a new generation of roving gonzo journalists and counter-culture writers. It was the kind of machine Michael Herr would balance on his knee when sending reports from Khe Sanh. Leonard Cohen used the earlier version to write ‘Suzanne’ and other light-hearted masterpieces. Cormac McArthy’s Olivetti sold for $254,500 in 2009, and he treated himself to a replacement for $20.

My fingers started getting tired by the end, hence the increased error rate.

My fingers started getting tired by the end, hence the increased error rate.

My Olivetti eventually gave up the ghost before I went to University. I replaced it with an Olympia (if I remember, Olivetti’s were no longer available in North Yorkshire) before graduating onto an electric typewriter that had a kick like a mule and one of those strange death star rotating balls instead of type bars. In 1984 I bought a BBC Micro 32 and discovered word processing, so my typing days were over.

I was delighted, therefore, to get a genuine Olivetti Lettera 32 for Christmas from my kids, in full working order with a spare ribbon. It came completely out of the blue, I wasn’t expecting it at all. Opening the box resulted in a feeling of instant familiarity, combined with the bizarre sense of stepping back forty years in time to an era when every single manuscript document on the planet was thrashed out on a mechanical typewriter. I’ve been playing around with it over the last couple of weeks and it’s fascinating to drop back into the mind-set of writing with a portable, while getting to grips with having all the advantages of a word processor whipped away. Here’s some of the conclusions I’ve come to:

Original US advert

Original US advert

1. The Olivetti Lettera 32 was a piece of compact engineering genius. As you’d expect with Italian design it combines attention to detail with a really cool vibe. There are loads of little levers and widgets to adjust tab stops, page ends, margins, lock the carriage etc. Bits of the insides look as delicate as a clock. It’s also very light, though the turquoise body is aluminium and feels pretty tough. It would probably stop a couple of stray bullets through the window of the Saigon embassy.

2. We’re spoilt in the range of letters and typographical tricks word processors give us. There’s no number 1 for a start, you had to use the letter ‘l’ instead. You would also need to add accents with a biro afterwards (bearing in mind this is an Italian typewriter), and yet it has a bunch of fraction keys. You’re stuck with Courier, and you can underline for emphasis – and that’s it. It means you are closer to the words themselves, undistracted by any visuals, which is why editors and publishers prefer manuscripts to look like they’ve been bashed out on one of these machines.

3. Typing is physically hard work. You have to belt the keys all the way down to get an impression. By the end of the first paragraph my fingers started to hurt and the mistakes increased. How people learned to touch type on these machines I don’t know, they must have had digits like Arnie’s thighs after a few months. After typing for ten minutes I went back to my Mac keyboard and nearly broke the thing, I was belting it so hard.

4. Writing is like carving on marble, or doing a tattoo – there’s no room for error, no cut and paste or spell checking. It feels like you are following a one-way street with no room for manoeuvre. Of course if you did bodge things up you could put a line through it, or overtype (or get out the Tippex), but the whole process forced you to think more carefully about the words you committed to paper. If I remember, the rule of thumb was no more than two mistakes per page, so if you got to the bottom of your A4 sheet and made your third because your fingers ached you had to start all over again. A complete page of error-free typescript from an Olivetti Lettera 32 represents a real piece of hard work and craftsmanship.

type

My kids inform me that mechanical typewriters, and especially Olivetti Letteras, are style icons with hipsters who sit in parks with them on their knees and no doubt type out homages to The Smiths, or lyrics for their own band Chlorine Shadows Fall Across My Soul’s Daisies. I couldn’t in all honesty return to composing on a typewriter, it’s too constraining and my workflow has changed from the ‘make it up as I go along’ process of that eight-year old me. But it’s a fascinating piece of history to have in the house, and a few minutes belting the keys takes me right back to the feeling of living in the late 60s and early 70s, especially if I put Tubular Bells on the Stereo Record Player.

Jude Law’s Henry V

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JudelawYesterday I went to see Jude Law in Henry V at the Noël Coward Theatre in London. We were right up in the gods, sitting on what was to all intents and purposes a shelf glued to the wall among the lights. This was a bit nerve wracking after the collapse of the Apollo Theatre ceiling this week, but we survived. The play itself was superb, a high-speed minimalist interpretation with a cracking performance from Jude Law. One of the advantages of living near London is the chance to see big name actors on stage, whether it’s Patrick Stewart in The Tempest, Kristin Scott Thomas in The Cherry Orchard or, in this case, an older, slightly fatter Gigolo Joe from A.I. chewing up the scenery in one of Shakespeare’s histories. For those who think pretty boy leads from Hollywood are chosen primarily for their looks and charm, Jude Law can definitely act and he turned in a brilliant interpretation.

Jude Law as Henry V at the Noel Coward theatre, London

Henry V is a very odd play. On the outside it looks like a rabble-rousing jingoistic piece with little plot and no real villain. Henry V and his raggedy army of plucky yeomen defeat the arrogant French at Agincourt – that’s it. This image of the play largely stems from the long shadow cast by Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film. During the early days of the war Olivier began a series of radio broadcasts in which he read excerpts from Shakespeare. The idea for a film of Henry V developed from these and the movie began production in 1942. It’s a beautiful piece of cinema, with sets based on medieval miniatures, and a suitably Thespian performance from Olivier. Anything that might detract from the image of an outnumbered ‘band of brothers’ defeating a massively superior and arrogant foe was edited out, while the stirring speeches before Harfleur (‘Once more unto the breach’) and Agincourt (‘We band of brothers’) were given the all-stops-out treatment as glorious set pieces.

Laurence Olivier as Henry V (1944)

Laurence Olivier as Henry V (1944)

In reality the play’s morality and jingoism is far more ambiguous. Once we put aside the inevitable pleasure any stout hearted Englishman feels at seeing the French getting a kicking, the war is entirely a cynical exercise in power-grabbing and propaganda. First Henry IV tells Henry V to go and have a foreign war to distract people from problems at home (Henry IV Part 2). Then, at the start of Henry V, the church concocts a specious claim for the king to bribe him so he doesn’t pass a law against them. Henry V’s invasion of France is therefore nothing more than a speculative land-grab based on a dubious interpretation of ancient inheritance law. The worst thing the French do is be a bit rude by sending King Harry a box of tennis balls and telling him (understandably) to sod off. To be fair they also bribe three nobles to do him in, but that’s an act of desperation after he’s already mustered his army and is preparing to sail for the continent.

Kenneth Branagh’s film of the play (1989) tackled this head on. Instead of the bombastic speechifying of the earlier film’s opening scenes, the decision to go to war becomes a muttered conspiracy in the shadows between the bishops, egged on by Henry’s uncle, played by Brian Blessed. Branagh’s film was made when the Falkland’s War was still fresh in people’s minds – a cynically engineered piece of adventurism that saved Margaret Thatcher’s political career. The battle scenes in Branagh’s Henry V are grim, bloody and soaked in mud, a far cry from the Medieval Day Out of Olivier’s Agincourt.

henryv2

Jude Law takes Branagh’s Henry one step further into the realms of Machiavellian power-broking. Branagh’s King mused a bit, felt sad and slightly guilty amid the carnage. Jude Law’s king is a hyperactive psychotic yuppie who prances around the stage verbally and physically bullying friends and enemies alike into compliance. It’s a fantastic performance, restless impatience and brutal energy constantly jostling in his delivery. The physicality of Henry, constantly waving his hands around to emphasise points, plans, or jabbing them like weapons at the people he’s talking to, is wonderfully counterpointed by the largely static performances of the supporting cast. At times he reminded me of Begbie from Trainspotting – matey impatience waiting to snap into thuggery at the drop of a hat. He carried all of the big speeches, injecting them with enough energy to rescue them from over-familiarity, and his wooing of Katharine at the end of the play was, for me, the highlight of the evening – funny and creepy in equal measure.

judelawhenryv

The production overall was tackled at high speed on a minimal stage – cramming the play into roughly three hours (in Shakespeare’s time this would also have been the case – it’s only from the Victorian era that pompous enunciation of every syllable slowed the plays down). Once in a while some of the performers sounded like they were gabbling, and briefly lost the meaning of the text, but on the whole delivery was clear. Ron Cook’s Pistol avoided the buffoonery many actors attempt when trying to render Elizabethan jokes funny for modern audiences, and instead managed to create a stripped-down version of Simon Beale’s magnificently tragic Falstaff in The Hollow Crown. Noma Dumezweni was equally impressive as both an understated and thoughtful Mistress Quickly and as Alice, the maid who attempts to teach Katherine some English. The only bum note to my mind was the Chorus. Although Ashley Zhangazha’s performance was top notch I question the decision to put him in jeans and a union jack t-shirt and cast him, as far as I could tell, as a fifth former studying the play for his GCSEs.

Henry V is a play that superficially offers limited scope for interpretation and can degenerate into uninspired battle heroics punctuated by bombastic speeches, as witnessed in the sadly disappointing version that ended The Hollow Crown. To give it a new and sinister twist that opens up the darker implications of the play is a real achievement, and Jude Law does a great job.

If you want to find out what really happened at Agincourt and how the over-lusty and arrogant French were trounced by the stout-hearted men of England, read Julie Barker’s brilliant account.

 

Corporate Samurai

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Wolverine decides between a Karaoke night and a Teppan Yaki bar

Decisions, decisions – Karaoke night or a Teppanyaki bar? The red sign trying to spell ‘Wolverine’ reads  ‘Noyohishiyoenyuushi’ which sounds like a new brand of underwear.

I downloaded The Wolverine from iTunes a couple of weeks ago. All good fun, even if it did go through the motions a bit, and Hugh Jackman is always watchable in the title role. It was set in Japan, at least the kind of Japan that only exists in Hollywood execs’ heads, and as such felt like a trip back to the early 1990s when I was living in Hokkaido, the northernmost island. At that time relations between Japan and the US weren’t great due to a huge trade imbalance, pumped up by the West as evidence that the Sons of Nippon were set to try and take over the world again, this time financially. Symptomatic of that era’s zietgeist were Karel von Wolferen’s ridiculously alarmist book The Enigma of Japanese Power and the film Rising Sun, based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name and starring Sean Connery. My Japanese friends were getting a bit sniffy about what they saw as the relentless Japanese bashing from the US and we all dutifully trooped off to the cinema to see the movie so they could get miffed bit more and we could attempt to mollify them by pointing out that not all Gaijin thought them avaricious wankers. It was a false alarm. Ten minutes in so-called Japanese expert Sean Connery opened his mouth, supposed ‘perfect Japanese’ came out, and the entire cinema dissolved into tears of laughter. From then on the film was treated as a comedy and Japanese audiences stopped taking US tantrums seriously, especially when shortly afterwards George Bush threw up in the Japanese Prime Minister’s lap halfway through trying to persuade him to buy American.

In the Science Fiction world attitudes to Japan came almost exclusively from Cyberpunk and novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. In these tales futuristic Asian cartels populated by corporate samurai slugged it out in cyberspace and the streets of future Chiba, a mega sprawl covering all of the eastern coast. Boosted Yakuza, Virtual Geisha and Otaku Hackers rubbed shoulders in the rainy streets of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and those images have stuck, recycled in movies, anime and computer games and egged on by Japanese who quite fancy themselves as Cyber Ninja. The problem is that this Japan bears about as much relationship to reality as Downton Abbey does to modern urban Britain. Having lived for ten years in the country, and worked with Japanese companies and universities for over two decades, I find it particularly hard not to giggle my way through The Wolverine and movies like it, especially when the following cliches are trotted out, yet again:

A typical working day in a Japanese company as the West imagines it.

A typical working day in a Japanese company as the West imagines it.

Japanese Businessmen are all Corporate Samurai

Ieyasu Tokugawa unified Japan in 1600 and exerted his power over the other feudal lords by making them very poor. Over the next three hundred years the samurai class turned into underpaid administrators, clerks and bureaucrats. Think about that for a second – they became civil servants, like the people who send out demands for tax, give you permission to build an extension to your garage or ban hanging baskets in town centres because they might fall on shoppers’ heads. In 1876 samurai were even forbidden to carry swords, which shows you how much power they had in early modern Japan. The idea that Tokyo salarymen carry an unbroken tradition of feudal loyalty from the medieval period is as ridiculous as saying I still hold to the chivalric ideals of my ancestor Sir Reginald De Colwic (c. 1157). Japanese corporate bosses do not, on the whole, keep entire suits of armour in their boardrooms, any more than I have a chain mail vest in my sock drawer, or a two-handed bastard sword in the cupboard. Japanese salarymen are overworked and harassed middle-class blokes with deadlines, car loans and grumpy managers, not über warriors ready to charge around kicking paper screens down in spectacular sword melees. Which brings me on to…

A real Japanese office. Notice the two ninja cunningly disguised as a wastepaper basket and bag.

A real Japanese office. Notice the two ninja cunningly disguised as a wastepaper basket and bag.

A Japanese Sword is the Mystical Soul of its Owner, forged by Master Craftsmen.

The first problem with Japanese swords is that they are long, very sharp and you need quite a bit of space to wield one. Unlike Western fencing, which largely consists of short jabbing movements with a pointed blade, Japanese swordplay involves waving the thing around with two hands and leaping all over the place while yelling the name of the part of the body you’re about to stick it in. Urban Japan is very cramped, and in many homes you can touch both walls by standing in the middle of the room with your arms stretched out.  Unless you are in a dojo or a big field you are likely to end up with the weapon stuck in the ceiling, walls or floor, or half a dozen people who got in the way. Japanese swords are nice, if you are into that kind of thing, but not the major core of Japanese culture films like Kill Bill and The Wolverine would have us believe. The Tokyo Sword Museum is the size of a big garage, but once you’ve looked at your twentieth bit of curved metal with a wavy pattern on it gets a bit dull, and I only ever saw the occasionally bored looking school party when I visited. The Yakuza sometimes break out swords because they are more frightening than a gun, but even they admit that they are a bugger to use in the cramped corridors of a rival gang’s den (in fact Yakuza offices are designed with very narrow passageways precisely to make it hard for topless tattooed Ken Takakura wannabees to get beyond the lift without being shot). Japanese swords can safely be filed under the ‘more romantic nonsense for gullible foreigners’ sign.

Rira Fukushima prepares to take out the light fittings, TV, air-con and family parrot in her 2 metre square apartment.

Rira Fukushima prepares to take out the light fittings, TV, air-con and family parrot in her 2 metre square Tokyo apartment.

Get out the Ninja

If the films are anything to go by if you have a problem with a rival dynasty or another corporation has undercut you all you need to do is Dial-a-Ninja and hundreds of black clad shadow warriors will pour over the rooftops hurling interesting home made bombs around like a violent version of Cirque Du Soleil. I never once came across anything to do with ninja in my twenty years dealing with Japan (Aha, you say, that’s because they melt into the shadows like the cunningly invisible assassins they are). The historical problem with ninja is that they were only good for one mission, at the end of which they killed themselves to protect the identity of their employer. The most famous ninja hid in a toilet all day so he could stab a lord up the bum, hardly exciting and romantic. It was never a particularly glamorous calling, despite the cool gear, and recruitment was always a problem. Yet Gaijin love ninja for some reason, and Japan is happy to feed this strange obsession.

Hugh Jackman closely avoids getting a sword up the bum.

Hugh Jackman closely avoids getting a sword up the bum.

All Japanese are Martial Arts Experts.

I studied Aikido at the world centre for Aikido in Tokyo for a year and every class consisted of 50% French (don’t ask me why), 20% other foreigners (including that bastard Miguel from Barcelona who nearly twisted my arm off) and one or two Japanese blokes. Martial arts are hard and you have to train for years, hence of little interest to disaffected, idle Japanese youth of today. Furthermore, in one of the most peaceful societies in the world there’s not a lot of call for close combat skills. The biggest hobby for my Japanese friends seems to be playing musical instruments and they are brilliant with the flute, violin etc. Martial arts are popular with Gaijin who want to be more Japanese than the Japanese. To the average Japanese twenty-something, martial arts have all the appeal of Morris Dancing over here. Admittedly the sight of a weirdly sexy Japanese model in stripy stockings and a black miniskirt whaling the crap out of ninja (who else?) makes for good viewing but now we really are in the fairy-tale realm of Sailor Moon.

Japan is ultra hi-tech society where the future is now!

OK – the Japanese love gadgets and are massive smartphone users, but that’s about it. Go into any Japanese office and you’ll be hit by the mountains of paper forms surrounding the computers. PC use came to the country later than in the West, simply because it was only from the late 1980s that computers were powerful enough to handle the thousands of Chinese characters needed for basic word processing. The vast majority of school classrooms use chalk and blackboard, and are heated by kerosene stoves. People sign the countless documents that cross their path with the same wooden seals used since medieval times. The most impressive sight is when you take money out of a bank or visit a post office. The teller works out the sum on a calculator, and then uses a wooden abacus to double check the machine got it right. Futuristic hi-tech exists in isolated pockets, and usually at the level of personal use, but as a whole Japan is a surprisingly lo-tech country.

One of the funniest comedies ever to hit Japan - Sean Connery in Rising Sun

One of the funniest comedies ever to hit Japan – Sean Connery in Rising Sun

and finally … Yakuza

Yakuza are brainless thugs. They like to think of themselves as champions of the commoners vs. corrupt politicians and much was made of the fact they were first on the street handing out food in the wake of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. In reality they rely on extortion, prostitution and peddling Class B drugs. They operate out of Estate Agents, have their own business cards and publish magazines containing poems about what a hard life they have. The police tolerate them because organised villainy is preferable to anarchy, but the rest of Japan is increasingly less accommodating and the Yakuza are on the retreat as local residents associations go on the attack, and they fall apart from their own in-feuding. Yes, the Yakuza’s biggest enemy is the middle-aged Japanese woman, so fearsome they even have a comic series dedicated to them. Yakuza rarely go international because, like most Japanese, they struggle with foreign languages and find themselves up against criminals from far less comfortable and accommodating societies like Russia and China who happily have them for breakfast. Finally re. Yakuza with fingers missing. They cut their finger ends off when they make a mistake, so the gangsters with lopped digits are the ones who are, quite frankly, a bit useless.

Revisiting Battle Royale

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BRsickle

In last week’s post Jane Dougherty raised the interesting question as to whether modern Young Adult fantasy sanitises the world for its readers, serving them the illusory comfort of simplistic ideas of good and evil over which teens can triumph, as opposed to the more complex banal institutional horrors that characterise the 20th and 21st centuries. She mentioned The Hunger Games as one example of an illusory and reassuringly anodyne view of the world concealed under superficial grittiness, and that got me thinking of the Japanese movie Battle Royale (2000).

There’s already been plenty of debate about whether The Hunger Games is a copy of the Japanese movie, (and novel by Koushun Takami) and I don’t want to get sucked into that argument here. What is interesting about the first film is not so much the blood and gore, but its fascinating portrayal of the social and cultural issues that Japan faced after its economic bubble burst in the 1990s, and the impact the economic crisis had on the relationship between the young and the old. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, in an unspecified near future Japan, classes of high school kids are kidnapped and forced to fight each other on a zoned island. Each child is given a back pack with survival rations and a random weapon, which could anything from a submachine gun to a frying pan. They also wear exploding collars to prevent them straying into forbidden zones or trying to escape the island. They fight it out amongst themselves, overseen by Takeshi Kitano‘s tragically world weary teacher.

Winner of the previous game of Battle Royale

Winner of the previous game of Battle Royale

The film caused ructions when it first came out, and questions were raised in the Japanese parliament about the levels of violence in the movie. By Japanese film standards it’s no worse than, say, the Lone Wolf and Child series, but the fact that it was high school kids seeing each other off with machine guns, crossbows and sickles touched a nerve for reasons that went beyond the copious amounts of ketchup sprayed around the sets. A number of high profile cases of kids killing each other in real life pointed to a deep malaise in society’s treatment of youngsters, and the pressures it subjected them to. Battle Royale seemed to be rubbing politicians’ faces into an issue they didn’t want to face.

classphoto

Japan possesses a very rigid hierarchical society which stood it in pretty good stead until the 1990s. The life path for a kid was mapped out to the nth degree – reasonably pleasant elementary education, sheer hell at high school (and at cram schools in the evening) swotting for university entrance exams, four years holiday at university itself, then a job for life in a giant corporate. Stifling conformity and obeisance to one’s superiors was worth it for the security and overwhelming sense of belonging to what can feel, at times, like a family of 120 million relatives. But then it all fell apart. Bad loans based on ludicrously inflated property prices came home to roost in the 1990s and the delicate framework of deals, complicity and back-scratching erected by the government, business and Yakuza (Japanese mafia) came tumbling down on top of the heads of the ordinary citizens.

Middle aged corporate workers started losing their jobs, the economy drifted into nearly two decades of stagflation and many young people began to realise the dream they’d been sold (study and get into a good university to secure your future) was a mendacious nightmare they couldn’t escape from. In the film the hero’s father loses his job and commits suicide, leaving his body draped in toilet roll covered in the word ganbaru (used all the time in Japan, it means ‘try hard’, ‘good luck’ and ‘please put up with it’). Another symptom of youngsters collapsing under societal pressure was the rise of the Hikikomori (literally ‘hiding away’), young men who locked themselves in their rooms for years, refusing to engage with society at all, while long-suffering mum pushed their meals under the door. Reports of children murdering their parents, and each other, in extreme violent rages suggested that the combination of intense social pressure to conform but with no guaranteed reward was creating a highly toxic situation.

The message on the board reads 'Today we're all skipping class'

The message on the board reads ‘Today we’re all skipping class’

Battle Royale shows a society in denial hysterically clinging onto the very institutions that cause the problems in the first place, by shifting the blame onto its main victims – the kids. The most interesting parts of the film are the scenes that play out the dynamics of a typical Japanese school room to a grotesque degree. The ‘lesson’ at the start of the game, when the kids are forced to watch a childishly patronising video describing what’s going to happen to them, is spot-on in its recreation of the relationship between fractious kids and a teacher on autopilot. Having spent twenty years working in and with the Japanese education system I can vouch for the authenticity of the scene (apart from the knife-throwing and exploding necks).

Hilarious send up of NHK TV for kids as hysterically cute 'older sister' explains how to kill your schoolmates.

Hilarious send up of NHK TV for kids as hysterically cute ‘older sister’ explains how to kill your schoolmates.

Takeshi Kitano specialises in playing middle-aged men trapped in the system with stunning poignancy, whether it’s a detective plagued with bad luck in Hana-bi, or a petty gangster turned child minder in Kikujiro. In Battle Royale half the time he’s either consigning kids to their deaths, reading out the butcher’s bill in the matter-of-fact tones of a teacher making an announcement about wet playtime, or handing out umbrellas to stop them getting rained on, sharing ice lollies in a bizarre dream sequence or fielding abusive phone calls from his own daughter. At one point the heroine comments that in her dream he always seems sad and lonely. At the end of the film he exercises by himself to a tape in an overgrown playground – a perfect image of the passing of traditional, secure, corporate Japan.

Not the best translation of the original Japanese

Not the best translation of the original Japanese

Behind the spraying blood and high-octane ultra violence Battle Royale is a highly intelligent movie that perfectly captures the sense of unease at a society facing an economic and social crisis that the establishment (largely consisting of old men) refuses to confront, deflecting blame, instead, onto the young, or women or indeed, anyone and everyone else. In the end all are victims, the kids, the parents, Takeshi Kitano’s ultimately lost and desolate teacher, and the drone-like military who go into hilarious and spectacular meltdown when the students briefly manage to hack into the system.

Lack of context, and poor subtitle translation meant that Battle Royale ended up on the shelf marked ‘ultra violent and weird Asian shit’, next to Ichi the Killer and the Korean movie Old Boy (another brilliant satire), waiting to be picked up by ‘edgy’ dilettantes like Quentin Tarantino who were happy to reproduce the stylish mayhem while discarding any message as irrelevant next to the need to be cool. In the wake of The Hunger Games it’s worth watching again as a mordant commentary on an establishment increasingly baffled by the refusal of the young to do what it’s told and ganbaru.

Dark Fantasy: is it suitable for the servants?

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darkcitadelThis week’s post is a guest article by Jane Dougherty, the author of the wonderfully grim fantasy novel The Dark Citadel. First in a series, it tells of a future religious/fascist dystopian society sheltering beneath an immense dome, around which prowl demons and creatures of legend. It’s refreshingly sinister and pulls no punches in its depiction of oppressive brutality. It also raises questions about the categorisation and censorship of books for young readers. In the old days no-one told teenagers what they should and shouldn’t read, now we have a whole industry devoted to producing ‘suitable’ fiction for those transitioning from childhood stories to ‘grownup’ writing. Is this just another example of our modern obsession with ‘appropriatness’ and control freakery? Read Jane’s excellent post and see what you think.

Dark Fantasy: is it suitable for the servants?

Since my first book, The Dark Citadel, was released at the beginning of October it has received several reviews pointing out the dark, violent aspects of the story, and its unsuitability for children. All fair comments—it is dark, and I never wrote it for children. But why write dark in the first place? What is its appeal?

After my youngest child was born I was kept more or less housebound in the winter with a rare condition, one of the symptoms of which is severe chilblains. Sounds funny but it wasn’t. The older children would bring armfuls of fantasy books back from the library and, not being able to choose any of my own, I read theirs. One series left a mark—Orcs, a particularly grim story by Stan Nicholls, with relentless violence set in an unspeakably awful world. It left a mark exactly because of the unremitting awfulness of it. What was an eleven year old doing reading this kind of stuff? Simple—our local library put all fantasy in the children’s section.

A few years later when I set to work on my first novel to please teenage children with epic fantasy indigestion, I had already decided that I wasn’t interested in talking animals, fascinating princes and forlorn or swashbuckling princesses. I was going for gritty fantastic realism, if that makes sense, not with monsters and endless battle scenes, but with true evil. There is so much more satisfaction to be got out of a really evil character than a good one.

Good versus Evil Cecil B. DeMille style

Good versus Evil Cecil B. DeMille style

So, my story was going to be dark. But what kind of darkness? There’s the Dark Lord type of darkness, the bloke who exists just to be evil and who must be fought with lots of bloodshed by massed coalitions of assorted un-evil peoples. This darkness smacks of cop out to me being simple sword-swinging with no moral consequences. If your enemy looks like something out of a freak show and comes at you in unfairly large numbers, there isn’t much to discuss.

I was much more interested in the Hannah Arendt notion of evil: its banality. In The Dark Citadel, the bumptious little Protector and the oppressive rules and strictures of the Elders’ theocracy are closer to Eichmann and the Taliban than to Sauron and his army of Orcs. Their evil is more chilling than the king of the demons who is after all only running true to type. Abaddon only exists and draws his strength from the real evil that the nasty regime has brewed without any prompting from him at all.

The Green Woman series is dark; unpleasant things happen, the world is ugly, and while some individuals make a stand against the ugliness, the majority are either tacit supporters or fully paid-up party members. As I see it, that’s pretty much how life is everywhere when your society is powerful and brutal. Do I think this kind of darkness makes suitable reading for young adults? Yes, I do. Without wishing to sound preachy, I believe that facing moral dilemmas and making the right decisions for the right reasons is part of becoming an adult, and writers who take that responsibility away from their young protagonists have created not heroes but selfish, immature human beings.

Evil as committee

Evil as committee

A case in point is The Hunger Games. For all I can appreciate the skill of the writing and the interesting storyline, I dislike the way the author is careful to avoid situations where Katniss has to take moral decisions. She kills children dammit, but the reader is expected to believe they deserved it, or else it was self-defence or a sort of accident. Katniss is deprived of the possibility of being heroic, and we know that for her credibility’s sake it’s just as well, because she wouldn’t have risen to the occasion.

Dark and nasty, but there is light at the end of the tunnel

Dark and nasty, but there is light at the end of the tunnel

The world of The Green Woman is not unadulterated darkness, and I haven’t done away with heroes, but they are the kind of heroes I admire: the partisans, the underdogs, the people who take risks to save others. None of them is handy with a sword, and there isn’t a single fledgling prince among them either.

If I had tried to pitch The Dark Citadel at an adult market, the elements of violence and evil would not have posed a problem. But the main protagonists are teenagers; therefore, according to the great god of marketing, this is a young adult novel. And when you’re talking about young adults you can forget the adult bit. We are talking here essentially about old children, and children are not supposed to be able to handle unpleasantness, even though they see far worse in visual images every time they turn on the TV.

This idea that the transition from Dora to Kafka will not take place naturally, and that without proper guidance, disastrous psychological damage may result, has opened the way for publishers to go to town on book categories. There was a time not so long ago when there were books for children and books for everyone who could understand or imagine what it means to be an adult. Children decided for themselves when they could handle something a little more edgy than Pooh sticks. Which did not mean that they immediately leapt for the Marquis de Sade. Kids read what they enjoy and understand.

Is there a limit to the kind of dark young adults should be expected to deal with? The answer, in my opinion is that if it’s good enough for adults, it’s good enough for young adults. I’m not a defender of gratuitous violence, violence used simply to titillate, but it has its place in a story about a brutal totalitarian regime. In fact, Providence without violence would not be credible. No more credible than an evil regime without opponents.

I didn’t write a totally dark story. True, it gets worse before it gets better, but there is hope in a better world, not just a return to the old one. Wherever there is evil there will always be resistance, otherwise humanity may as well just turn off the lights, put the key under the door and stumble off into oblivion.

Jane Dougherty

Jane Dougherty

You can buy The Dark Citadel from Amazon.com here and from Amazon.co.uk here I can also highly recommend Jane’s blog where she talks about writing, poetry and her life in France.

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Visualising Ragged Claws in 3D

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Raggedclaws3

The first draft of my next novel and sequel to Thumb, Ragged Claws, is now finished and tucked safely in a drawer for a month. It’s hard not to keep re-reading and tinkering, but I know from experience that if you’re not careful you end up reading what’s in your head, not what’s in the manuscript itself. So to keep myself occupied I’m spending the next few weeks creating the artwork and for that I’ll be using the 3D animation software Houdini 13, which was released last week. Normally a full licence for this would cost anywhere up to $9,000. That’s if you are one of the big studios who uses it for movies like Thor: The Dark World or Gravity. For people like me there’s the ‘starving artist’ edition which is a mere $99, which is incredible really because it’s no different to the full version. The only difference is if you use this on your Hollywood blockbuster, SideFX’s lawyers will pull your toenails out.

Many many years ago (1974) BBC 2 did a series called ‘The Do-it Yourself Film Animation Show‘ which showed people how to make their own cartoons, with the help of famous animators like Terry Gilliam of Monty Python, and Bob Godfrey who was responsible for the hysterical he’s-eaten-too-many-jelly-tots cartoon Roobarb. In those days the technology stretched to cut out bits of paper, felt pen and biro (which gave Roobarb it’s unmistakeable psychedelic vibe) and for the really ambitious, acrylic paint on acetate (Disney). I built myself a rostrum with bits of wood and paint cans, bought a second hand ex-Wermacht (probably) Standard 8 cine camera and made a few films. It was great and I fell in love with animation.

A couple of Vipers I built using the 3D package Lightwave.

A couple of Vipers I built using the 3D package Lightwave.

I saw Tron in 1982 and like every other geek on the planet my jaw hit the floor with a loud clang. Even though the actual animation in the film is under 20 minutes, the potential it had for creating entirely believable fantasy and science fiction worlds captured my imagination. Over the next thirty years I tinkered on and off with different 3D computer packages, creating landscapes in Bryce 3D with its ground-breaking terrain generators, and learning how to build Battlestar Galactica Vipers in Lightwave which, for a short while, was the program of choice for budding 3D animators. The special effects in Babylon 5 and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica were both done in Lightwave.

There are essentially three levels of 3D software for those interested in having a go. At the bottom end Daz3D and Poser are used by many to populate Uncanny Valley with thousands of unfeasibly-breasted fantasy mannequins. These programs operate a bit like an Action Man or Barbie set – get a standard human figure, pull it about a bit to turn it into a character, dress it up and plonk it in a pre-designed landscape. Bingo, Thongar the Barbarian rescues Princess Mammaria from a giant Steampunk Robot. You can actually get very good results if you put in the time and effort, though it’s pretty easy to spot artwork from this end of the spectrum because of the doll-like sameness of a lot of the images (and the slightly, er, adolescent subject matter).

Houdini demo reel

There’s not as much available mid-level any more, although the wonderful free program Blender is still around. This is because 3D animation has now reached such a level of sophistication that in order to achieve the quality expected by most production houses you have to go for one of the high end professional packages. In the past these cost an arm and a leg. A lot of companies realised that this was counterproductive if they wanted to make sure that each new generation of artists were adequately skilled in their software. So they started making student editions available, which is great news for the rest of us who baulk at stumping up $9000 a licence. The professional 3D animation world is dominated by Autodesk’s Maya, and Houdini, which is odd because you will very rarely hear about the latter in 3D forums, despite being used on just about every major movie. Opening credits to Skyfall? Big splashy whale in Life of Pi? All done in Houdini. The problem is that the software uses a completely different paradigm to all the other packages, which makes it both incredibly powerful but also a bit of a challenge to learn. Once the penny drops, though, it’s fantastic to work with.

At the moment I’m working on the back cover for the book. Without giving too much away I wanted to show some strange vehicles making their way over a weird blocky landscape in an empty universe. As I mentioned before, the overall aesthetic I wanted to aim for was somewhere between the art of the German Expressionists, and the very early SF covers of the 1930s, especially those of Frank R. Paul and Wesso. I didn’t want to make it look like a super realistic vision of the future – partly because I see too much of that in movies, and partly because it takes huge teams of software engineers months to make it look good.

Test render of the strange Expressionist caravan.

Test render of the strange Expressionist caravan.

So here is the strange vehicle. It had to look sinister, and slightly distorted, like a child’s toy that’s gone a bit grotesquely mad. Without going into too much technical detail, Houdini uses a procedural system that allows you to work at any stage of a model build so you can revisit earlier parts and make fundamental changes without impacting on the details you add later. In this case I decided to fatten up the wheels and angle them a bit more, to make them look reminiscent of a bug’s legs.

An early test render for the mysterious vehicles.

An early test render for the mysterious vehicles.

The next thing I wanted to create was the landscape. It’s the skin of a man-made mannequin five hundred thousand miles long, built from debris and scrap brought from the distant past. Up close it’s a wilderness of blocks, shapes and lights flung together. I’ve built a routine in Houdini that allows me to randomly generate huge swathes of this landscape. Here’s an initial render of the landscape to allow me to check the geometry of the scene.

Test render of the surface of the titan's skin. High above the atmosphere.

Test render of the surface of the titan’s skin. High above the atmosphere.

At this point it’s worth stating the number 1 Golden Rule of 3D.

THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR IN A 3D IMAGE IS THE LIGHT

It’s also the bit that’s often ignored. After spending months building, rigging and texturing a model a lot of artists just bung in a couple of lights and end up with the kind of unmotivated and flat illumination that plagues many 3D images. Obviously with the scene set in the eternal night at the end of the universe I’ve got to get the balance right between showing a landscape plunged into darkness, lit here and there with a few guttering lamps or mystic light sources, and making sure enough of the scene is visible and recognisable. Here’s a draft of the final image, with the vehicles added to the landscape.

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The whole thing needs a lot more work, but as a first pass I’m quite happy with the results.

Pards and Manticores – A Medieval Bestiary

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Manticore from a 13th Century Bestiary. Check out that cool hat.

Manticore from a 13th Century Bestiary. Check out that cool hat.

Herodotus the father of history divided knowledge into three types. Things he saw with his own eyes, information people told him which he could verify as true, and things he couldn’t verify and might easily be completely made up. He visited Egypt, and so when he writes about its manners and customs we can be assured that his descriptions are more or less accurate, if a bit quirky. Gold-hoarding giant furry ants living in India were clearly the deranged invention of someone he met in a pub

Medieval monks faced the same problems but magnified. Herodotus got about a bit. Your average Brother in 13th century Lindisfarne rarely ventured further than the monastery herb garden, and so their understanding of nature follows the same pattern as Herodotus’s writings. They can confidently talk about dogs, cats, mice and jackdaws but once they’re asked to describe creatures a bit further away they struggle. Lions, camels and elephants they can just about manage – after all Biblical tradition is full of those – but they rapidly come unstuck with Rhinocerii, Chameleons, Manticores and other fabulous creatures. This didn’t stop them having a go, especially in England where we have a unique tradition of beautiful illustrated catalogues of medieval creatures. One of my favourite books is the Folio edition of a Medieval Bestiary from the Bodlean Library in Oxford. It dates from round about the thirteenth century (the time of King Edward I) and is full of wonderful illuminated miniatures of the animals it describes. Bestiaries are a fantastic window onto the medieval mind.

Pages from a medieval bestiary.

Pages from a medieval bestiary.

To understand why they came up with stuff that seems ludicrous to us now, it’s useful to know some of the basic principles of medieval alchemy. To begin with everything had a secret name that concealed its true nature. When Adam named the animals he used the original language of Eden, which monks thought to be the language of God. This was lost when God destroyed the Tower of Babel and mixed all the languages up. If an alchemist could rediscover the true names of things he would have power over them. Bestiaries go to great lengths to determine the etymology of animal names – even if they’re clearly making stuff up again (“The name mule comes from the Greek, because the beast is yoked by the miller to the heavy millstone”).

Secondly medieval learning was founded on reasoning through association. If objects appeared similar in the great scheme of things, it was because they had real relationships that could be manipulated. To give a simple example – the sun is the greatest celestial object, the king is the most powerful man, the lion the strongest animal and gold the noblest metal. Therefore these four items are linked through mystical relationships that, if discovered, can allow them to be controlled. It’s all complete nonsense of course, but it was central to the medieval mindset.

Gryphon eating a pig.

Gryphon eating a pig, or dancing with it.

Finally knowledge came from ancient books, not from reality. Plato and Aristotle received their wisdom more or less from God, even if they were pagans and it came to them in a slightly roundabout way (involving the Egyptian God Thoth, and Moses). So what they said was divine truth. If a monk looked out of the window and saw something different (e.g. a bear giving birth to something obviously a little bear, instead of an amorphous lump that it subsequently licked into shape) then nature had probably got it wrong, which was understandable because it was corrupt, sinful and messy, whereas God’s wisdom as described by Aristotle was eternal and true.

Bestiaries were essentially religious books. Medieval scholars would often misread animal behaviour by awarding it moral qualities. Thus if an ape “bears twins, she will love one and hate the other. If she happens to be pursued by hunters she will clasp the one she loves in front of her and carry the one she hates on her back.” Nearly every animal echoes a lesson from Scripture. The basilisk, which can kill a man by looking at him “signifies the devil, who openly kills the heedless sinner with his venom”. Often the desire to force an analogy leads to the good brothers dispensing misleading, if not fatal, advice. The lion, we are told, represents Jesus and is therefore filled with mercy and kindness. This is “confirmed by numerous examples: they will spare men lying on the ground, and will lead captives whom they meet to their home.” They also have sex face to face, as do the lynx, camel, elephant and rhinoceros – so perhaps the Can You Feel The Love Tonight bit in Disney’s The Lion King wasn’t so wide of the mark.

Because Lions are like Jesus they won't attack pilgrims who lie down. Honest.

Because Lions are like Jesus they won’t attack pilgrims who lie down. Honest.

The Bodleian Library Bestiary cheerfully wanders all over the known world in a fairly random fashion. Ethiopia gets mentioned a lot, probably because it hosted one of the earliest Christian churches and so there were well-established lines of communication between it and rest of Christendom (by medieval standards anyway). The common language of Latin united religious communities in a wide-ranging network of information exchange, even if the information itself was often muddle-headed, apocryphal or just plain wrong. Outside the known world we are firmly in the realm of Bored Monks Making Stuff Up. The chameleon looks like a one-eyed multicoloured deer. The amphisbaena “is so called because it has two heads, one in the right place, the other on its tail. It goes in the direction of both heads, and its body forms a circle” and the manticore is bright red with a human face and three rows of teeth.

You have to admire the imagination of the monks, not least for the stunning illustrations, and we have them to thank for considerable chunks of the D&D Monster Manual. It’s a shame that manticores don’t exist, and that lions are a slightly less accommodating than their cuddly medieval counterparts. On the other hand there’s less chance of an unwary traveller being eaten because he lay down in front of a enormous hungry African carnivore hoping it would be all meek and mild like Jesus

Things to Come (1936)

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Things to Come PosterIn 1936 Alexander Korda, flush from his success with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), collaborated with H. G. Wells to turn the writer’s future history The Shape of Things to Come (1933) into a movie, ending up with what is probably the first attempt to make a serious SF film. What emerged is one of the most fascinatingly bizarre movies in science fiction film history, one which gives a stunning insight into just how prescient, and how completely misguided, Wells’s vision of the future was, especially in the context of what was happening in European politics at the time.

The first thing you notice when watching the film is the poor quality of the images, (few decent prints survived of the movie) and everybody’s accent. The ordinary British people portrayed in Things to Come make the inhabitants of Downton Abbey sound like the Sex Pistols during one of their more incoherent moments. This goes beyond posh to Utterly Alien Noises. Cut-glass stage accents of the 1930s do almost sound like another language, and effect is compounded by the extremely stagey performances of the cast. Raymond Massey and Edward Chapman play three generations of the same characters, Cabal and Passworthy, and their conversation around the Christmas tree circa 1940 goes something like this:

CABAL: “WOOOORS and ROOOOmers of WOOR, wetivir will heppen to es oorl?”,

PASSWORTHY: “Bet Kebel, the lest WOOOR wesnt as bed as sem peeple meik art”

CABAL: “Pisswirthy – If we do net end WOOOOR then WOOOOR will end es!”.

It takes a bit of getting used to, but thankfully the sacchirine vision of 1930s Christmas round the tree ends when the unnamed ‘enemy’ bombs the town flat, ushering a montage showing the World War lasting from 1940 to 1966 by which time civilisation has collapsed and toothless hicks throw boulders at each other until an epidemic called ‘the wandering sickness’ brings the conflict to a halt.

'Nye lick haar, Mr. Aviator'. - Ralph Richardson looking about 16 as the 'Chief'.

‘Nye lick hyaar, Mr. Aviator, ‘Eym thi boorrss rynd hyaar!’. – Ralph Richardson looking about 16 as the ‘Chief’.

In the second part of the film, set in 1970, local upstart dictator ‘the Chief’, played by Ralph Richardson, finds his power challenged by the arrival of Cabal sporting black leather and flying a futuristic airplane. Cue lots of theatrical marching up and down and declaiming as the pompous tyrant of the ‘Indipindint sivirin steyt et WOOOR’ is faced down by the representative of Wings over the World – the new world order of black leather-clad scientists who finally roll up with a massive fleet of bombers to put the Chief in his place by dropping sleeping gas on everyone (the Chief, however conveniently dies because there is ‘ner pleys for his sert in the New Werld Erder’). By this time the modern viewer starts thinking ‘hang on a sec..’ as the leader of quasi-military Wings over the World, surrounded by men dressed like SS officers complete with brylcreemed hair, sets out his vision of a Scientific World of Tomorrow.

CabalWingsovertheWorld

The arrival of Wings over the World in nice black uniforms and slightly impractical helmets.

Next comes one of the most visually impressive parts of the film as a montage of special effects and model work fast-forwards us through the scientific advances of the next sixty six years and the building of the new Everytown underground. For some reason early visions of the 21st century had us all flouncing around in neo-classical gowns and flip flops, so thankfully the cod-Luftwaffe uniforms have been replaced by capes and togas. Man stands on the eve of his greatest triumph, as Cabal’s great grandson. (again played by Massey) prepares to fire his daughter and Passworthy’s son at the moon with the Space Gun. Sadly, despite the triumph of science, rebellion still lurks in the form of Cedric Hardwicke’s Theotocopulos (don’t ask) whose thundering performance makes the previous hour look like an essay in Martin Scorcese-directed method acting. His objections to the Space Gun seem to be founded on nothing more than an artists’s suspicion of science and a desire to return to a time when ‘LIFE (raise fist to heavens) WAS (march up and down) HOT (flare nostrils and boggle eyes) AND (flip cloak dramatically over shoulder) MERRY!!!! (exhale and strike a pose). Despite an absence of any content or cogent argument, other than bellowing variations on ‘WE DON’T WANT YOUR PROGRESS!’ he whips up the inhabitants of Everytown into rent-a-mob in about two minutes flat and they all charge off to destroy the Space Gun.

At the Space Telescope

At the Space Telescope

The last exchange between the descendants of Cabal and Passworthy as they watch the progress of their offspring via a giant telescope is worth quoting at length (you’ll have to imagine the accents this time):

PASSWORTHY: “But we are such little creatures. Poor humanity. So fragile–so weak.”

CABAL: “If we are no more than animals–we must snatch at our little scraps of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more–than all the other animals do–or have done.” (He points out at the stars.) “It is that–or this? All the universe–or nothingness…. Which shall it be, Passworthy?”

Cue heavenly chorus belting out ‘WHICH SHELL IT BEEEEEE?!’ over the credits.

Wells got the future spectacularly wrong, which is not so surprising. What is surprising is how the film manages to get the present completely wrong as well. It shows such a misguided understanding of the state of things in the inter-war period that it becomes hard to understand why Wells was seen as such a profound political thinker at the time. To be fair, English culture during this era wasn’t known for its subtle perceptions of the movements of history. There was England and the Empire, and then a lot of irrelevant stuff like France and Germany in between.  Many English writers and film makers subsequently had their gaze locked firmly inwards and Wells and Korda were no exception. Hence the movie cheerfully echoes images and ideas lifted wholesale from Italian and German fascism (world domination by a ‘scientific’ elite, progress as nothing more than the manifestation of Nietzchean will, kinky black leather uniforms) without being aware that it’s doing so. The villiains of the piece are cartoon straw men conjured from the Home Counties or the pages of Richmal Crompton’s Just William – Richardson’s Colonel Blimp ‘Chief’, Hardwicke’s Oscar Wilde look-a-like pampered Bohemian, both quickly vanquished by Wells’s rhetoric.

It’s easy to see how later writers like Orwell grew impatient with what they saw as Wells’s dangerous naivety. To be fair, Wells was not alone in his blinkered understanding of what was really happening around him. Right up until the mid 1930s fear of communism trumped disquiet about fascism, and British papers like The Daily Mail happily praised Mussolini, Franco and Mosley’s British Union of Fascists while moaning about Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi persecution. Efficient leaders that sorted out the world’s muddles, kept the wrong-headed in their place and got things done in a scientific way were to be admired. In the first half of the 1930s only a few astute loners like Churchill realised where this thinking would, and did, end up.

H. G. Wells on the set of Things to Come

H. G. Wells on the set of Things to Come

Despite its faults Things to Come is a wonderfully fascinating film to watch. It’s stagey and bombastic with zero characterisation. The actors are nothing more than mouthpieces for Wells repetitive speechifying about Progress vs Ignorance and much of it drags, especially at the beginning. But some of the montages and set pieces are brilliantly staged. As a piece of science fiction film history and an example of the wrong-headedness of much 1930s UK political commentary it’s a treat to watch.

Not surprisingly the real world betrayed Wells’s utopian dream. Having being lauded as a profound political thinker and future prophet, he travelled the pre-war globe to talk with world leaders, famously asking Stalin what he intended to do about world peace. Yet within years World War II had taken his Utopian dream of a global empire ruled by efficient scientists and turned it into a grotesque nightmare. The extent of his disillusionment is clear from the title of his last book, The Mind at the End of its Tether (1946).

Things to Come can be watched on YouTube here

And here is H. G. Wells’s script for the film.

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett

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bookmanscoverLike a moth to the flame I find myself once again drawn into the strange world of the Shakespeare authorship question, though this time it’s through the entirely charming and entertaining novel The Bookman’s Tale, by Charlie Lovett. This is a thriller aimed at antiquarian book lovers, and as such falls somewhere between The DaVinci Code (it’s much better written than Dan Brown’s book), and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Like a  modern-day William of Baskerville, mild-mannered nerdy book lover Peter Byerly finds himself caught up in a mystery framed by the question – what ancient volume would contain marginalia so explosive as to lead to treachery and murder?

Overcome by the death of his floaty Pre-Raphaelitesque wife Amanda, Peter flees to the UK to hide from the world.  He discovers what seems to be her portrait in an old book shop in Haye-on-Wye on the Welsh border. The only problem is that the picture is a Victorian watercolour. Not only that but in trying to track down the picture’s origins Peter rapidly finds himself stumbling across an even more astonishing find which, if shown to be genuine, would prove once and for all that jobbing oik William Shakespeare from Stratford was indeed the author of at least one of his plays. Of course such a volume treads on the toes of enough nutters to prompt betrayal and violence throughout the centuries, and Peter finds himself caught up in a tangle of plot and counterplot that stretches back to the early 17th century.

It’s a very entertaining novel, especially for someone like me who both loves old books and Shakespeare. Lovett has precisely captured both the seductive attraction of browsing old bookstores (and the pleasure of the real ‘find’) and the often convoluted and bizarrely over-intense world of book collectors, dealers and forgers. This is not surprising given that Lovett himself is a book collector and ex antiquarian bookseller, and it’s clear that much of the novel is written from his own experience. Indeed the narrative itself often sounds like the mildly obsessive but charming pedants who run the second hand bookshops I love to visit.

Not surprisingly then, The Bookman’s Tale shines in its descriptions of old books and the meticulous process of restoration, especially in the chapter where Peter rebinds an edition of George MacDonald’s classic Victorian children’s tale At the Back of the North Wind for Amanda. Her character is clearly constructed as a shy academic’s fantasy. She’s beautiful, bookish, indescribably fey and sophisticated. Naturally her response to being given a lovingly hand-bound and personalised copy of an antiquarian book is to tear her clothes off in gratitude for the first of a series of bouts of unrestrained shagging on (where else?) a library floor. At this point the author’s own personal fantasies get a bit too obvious, but the scenes still manage to capture a real sense of affection between the two socially inept bookworms that redeems the daftness.

Charlie Lovett

Charlie Lovett

The Bookman’s Tale is also occasionally hampered by its academic subject matter. Lovett’s desire to slip in as much historical and technical information into the scenes can come across as a bit laboured. At times it feels as if every mention of a historical character has to have a quick lecture tossed in for good measure. In half a page’s wander through an Elizabethan tavern we get potted histories of Thomas Nashe, George Peele, John Lyly, Christopher Marlowe and of course the upstart glove maker’s son Shakespeare. Later on in the book Peter mentions W.H. Smiths and we are treated to a quick aside about how the newsagents was founded by a First Sea Lord under Disraeli who was the inspiration for Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. At points like this the novel sounds a bit like a Mastermind contestant specialising in antiquarian esoterica but it does actually work, in rather an odd way, because when it happens the narrative voice echoes the obsessive introspection of the main character Peter. It’s quite an achievement to make a painfully shy, fusty young fogie rendered even more self-absorbed with grief into an interesting lead and yet Lovett not only manages to do this, but charts the man’s re-emergence into day to day life with convincing sympathy.

Beyond the world of books and scholarship the book is less assured and occasionally relies on cinematic cliches apparently channeled in from movies like Sleepless in Seattle and (in one odd scene) Play It Again Sam. In this chapter Peter is on a dinner date with a possible love interest and seems to see the ghost of Amanda appear in the restaurant to regale him with a bit of chat-up advice (“‘Tell her about the opera,’  Amanda mouthed to him, before fading away.”). Fair enough, though at the end of the anecdote not only is the hero and his date in tears, but Ghost Amanda is also having a bit of a grizzle. Scenes like this, that might just work on the screen, end up being a wee bit ridiculous in the book.

But these are minor quibbles as The Bookman’s Tale is clearly intended to be nothing more than a very sophisticated and elegant intellectual mystery story by and for people who love old books and bookstores. Compared to Dan Brown’s nonsensical churnings it’s well written and scampers back and forth through the ages without losing the plot or getting too much caught up in potted lectures on the admittedly labyrinthine genealogy of old volumes. It certainly had me gripped. Perhaps its frequent leaning on Hollywood imagery represents a big hint to those who might think it had the makings of, at least, a mid-level romantic mystery starring (at a guess) Jude Law and Emily Blunt. We’ll have to see.

The book is available from Amazon.co.uk here

and from Amazon.com here

Charlie Lovett’s website is here.

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