Gormenghast of the Mind

After the BBC’s disastrous television production of Gormenghast, the trilogy of novels by Mervyn Peake, they are now making amends with a splendid radio adaptation. It’s impossible to translate that Gothic creation of arcane, stultifying rituals and trapped flights of fancy, all captured within a seemingly endless maze of stone corridors, towers and parapets, in a flat visual plane. All the television production did is recreate a gallery of grotesques, rendered ridiculous by too literal images. Gormenghast needs the infinitely liberating power of the imagination, something radio does perfectly.

I remember falling into the novels and knowing nothing of ordinary reality until I emerged, dazed at the end.  A superb fantasy, so grounded in detail that its world seemed as solid as real life.  If anything, real life seemed a bit gray and tenuous for a while afterwards. I fell in love with Fuschia Groan, hating the upstart Steerpike for his cynical pursuit of her, while being forced to admire his ambition and determination to overthrow the Groan dynasty.

So here it is, starting with the first of six episodes, and available for about four weeks.


Best of all, though, is to read the novels. Here’s the opening paragraph of Titus Groan, first novel in the trilogy.

Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls. They sprawled over the sloping earth, each one halfway over its neighbour until, held back by the castle ramparts, the innermost of these hovels laid hold on the great walls, clamping themselves thereto like limpets to a rock. These dwellings, by ancient law, were granted this chill intimacy with the stronghold that loomed above them. Over their irregular roofs would fall throughout the seasons, the shadows of time-eaten buttresses, of broken and lofty turrets, and, most enormous of all, the shadow of the Tower of Flints. This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

The People’s Palace


A room without books is like a body without soul, and I say, a city without books, and a city without libraries, is a graveyard.
– Malala Yousafzai

I’m a big fan of public libraries. The title of this post is shamelessly stolen from a BBC documentary, celebrating the opening of the Library of Birmingham last week. Well worth a look while it’s still on iPlayer. The title says everything about what is owed to citizens in a democracy.

But it’s more than just a library. It’s a big, beautiful whack upside the head to the small-minded purveyors of austerity, who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. That value was demonstrated by the young woman who opened the library, Malala Yousafzai, shot through the head at the age of 15 in her native Pakistan for the crime of advocating education for girls.

Since recovered and now a Brummie, she talked about education and the value of libraries.

Inspiring stuff. It’s sad that someone for whom education was a life-threatening endeavour had to say it in a country that allows its glorious legacy of public libraries to be destroyed.

I love this YouTube footage of the opening from Maria Clara Sibayan. It’s as much about the people of Birmingham enjoying their new library as it is about the building. And that’s exactly how it should be.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Neil Gaiman’s new novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is out. It sounds so mouthwateringly good that I might even buy a copy new, rather than wait for it to show up in my local charity shop.

The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing, and Ideas, is a literary and publishing centre in Melbourne, where he recently gave a talk and read from the book. I like this Wheeler Centre, and I like the interviewer, a woman with the fetching name of Alicia Sometimes. It’s an Antipodean TED, only much more interesting because of the Australian attitude. TED tends toward the bland and corporate. I might dump the occasional TED Talks feature in favour of the Wheeler Centre videos.

And here’s Neil.

Mother Said

What can I say about Hal Sirowitz?  Imagine that Alexander Portnoy, the hero of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, grew up to be a performance poet instead of a NYC Commissioner.  Sirowitz wears his family like several layers of clothes on a hot day.  The poems he sweats out are a deadpan testimony to the sort of care a young man needs to take, just to get through his day without suffering death or dismemberment.  According to his Mother, that is.  He’s one of the best exponents of Jewish angst I know, including Woody Allen.

Nice man.  He gave a poetry reading in Borders at Westlake Mall in Seattle, and signed my copy of Mother Said (1996), his most famous collection.  Here’s a video of Sirowitz reading Chopped Off Arm and No More Birthdays.

And now you’ve got the intonation, here’s one you can imagine him performing.

Missing Finger

Don’t stick your hand in the water,
Mother said, while your father is rowing.
A fish might think that one of your fingers is a worm-
I heard that the constant water in their eyes
makes them nearsighted-& bite it off.
Then you won’t be able to count to ten
on your fingers, & you’ll flunk
all your math tests. And you won’t
be able to get a good grip on your baseball bat,
& what would have been a home run
will now become a single. And don’t think
that just because you’ll have one less fingernail
to cut, we’ll make your life easier, & treat you
like a cripple. Your remaining fingers
must learn to work harder.

Hey, let’s be careful out there.

A History Maker

James Hogg Statue and St Mary’s Loch, Scottish Borders

A History Maker, by Alasdair Gray (Canongate, 1994)

This is a Scottish science fiction novel about a flawed utopia and a misfit who unwittingly brings about necessary change.  As the title suggests, it’s also about the role history plays in how we think about the present, particularly the tendency to think in terms of historical epochs.  And about how disastrously wrong we can be.  You might remember Francis Fukuyama and all that nonsense about The End of History when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989.

Gray opens with a quote that sets the tone for the whole novel:

Economics: Old Greek word for the art of keeping a home weatherproof and supplied with what the householders need.  In historical times this word was used by British governments and their advisers to mean political housekeeping – the art of keeping their bankers, brokers and rich supporters well supplied with money, often by impoverishing other householders.  They used the Greek instead of the English word because it mystified folk who had not been taught at wealthy schools.  The rhetoric of plutocratic governors needed economics as the sermons of religious governments needed the Will of God.  (From The Intelligence Archive of Historical Jargon.)

Alasdair Gray

Spot on.  Can’t say fairer than that.  Set in the early 23rd century, the world has changed beyond recognition.  Biogeneticists have created powerplants that tower into the sky, their roots tapping into geothermal energy, to provide households with all their food and everything but the bulkiest of household goods.  They even extrude the living quarters where extended families raise their children communally and monogamy is a thing of the past.

As a result, there is now a domestic economy with no need for money or government, and people no longer have to live in cities.  Women are literally instrumental in supplying the necessities of life, through their ability to play them into existence on the keyboard of the powerplant. It’s an intuitive art akin to music, though Gray doesn’t say why men could not do the same.

Men no longer have any crucial role to play in their communities, apart from those who leave Earth for the Moon and Solar System to prepare those places for human expansion, or go into science and the entertainment industry.  Their new role is to become warriors in televised battles, based on a region’s history.  The battles are real, brutal, lethal, and while medical science can regrow hacked-off limbs, people still die.  It’s all strictly regulated by a future version of the Geneva Convention to ensure that the domestic economy is not harmed.  Young girls stick posters of their favourite warriors on their walls and, since a warrior’s function between battles is to maintain the population, have a good prospect of bearing their children.

Not everyone is happy.  Wat Dryhope is a misfit – he’s been to the Moon and returned because he can’t bear the loss of Earth and the past it represents.  As a warrior, he’s still discontent because there are no real consequences (apart from his death) of the battles fought for television audiences.  At heart, he wants monogamy and something to fight for that really matters.

I said this is Scottish science fiction, and it is deeply rooted in that country’s history, but it’s also set in a very specific place – St Mary’s Loch in the Scottish Borders.  So the historically appropriate form of warfare is a recreation of the battles between the Borders and Northumbria that occurred for centuries during the Middle Ages and beyond.  There’s also a touch of the football teams about them in the way they’re presented on television – Borders United v. Northumbria United.

Dryhope Tower, where Wat’s mum lives

Wat Dryhope is the catalyst for change in this very civilized, but somewhat smug, matriarchy.  He pulls off an audacious, only just within the rules, draw for Clan Ettrick against overwhelming odds, becoming a world-wide celebrity.  Unknown to him, a few other misfits in the entertainment industry are pumping up the publicity to destabilize society.  It begins to work as pressure builds for bigger and better battles, creating a new appetite for militarism.  And there’s worse to come – he’s about to meet the love of his life.

I’ll not say more.  This is a stunning, complex novel, with roots deep in Scottish history and culture.  The story is told by the characters, first Wat’s mother, representing the matriarchy, and then Wat’s account of the 7 days encompassed by the novel.  At the end, she adds a section called Notes & Glossary Explaining the Obscurities, an essential coda to the story.  And there are some splendid illustrations and maps by the author, which work together with the text to bring out the ethos of this society.

I can’t recommend A History Maker too highly.

St Mary’s Loch

Love and Freindship

In honour of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, here is an excerpt from Love and Freindship (1790), a wicked parody of the romantic novel from Jane Austen’s juvenilia. Laura is writing to her friend’s daughter, Marianne, in order to instruct her in the ways of the world.

Letter 4th

Our neighbourhood was small, for it consisted only of your Mother. She may probably have already told you that being left by her Parents in indigent Circumstances she had retired into Wales on eoconomical motives. There it was our freindship first commenced. Isobel was then one and twenty. Tho’ pleasing both in her Person and Manners (between ourselves) she never possessed the hundredth part of my Beauty or Accomplishments. Isabel had seen the World. She had passed 2 Years at one of the first Boarding-schools in London; had spent a fortnight in Bath and had supped one night in Southampton.

“Beware my Laura (she would often say) Beware of the insipid Vanities and idle Dissipations of the Metropolis of England; Beware of the unmeaning Luxuries of Bath and of the stinking fish of Southampton.”

“Alas! (exclaimed I) how am I to avoid those evils I shall never be exposed to? What probability is there of my ever tasting the Dissipations of London, the Luxuries of Bath, or the stinking Fish of Southampton? I who am doomed to waste my Days of Youth and Beauty in an humble Cottage in the Vale of Uske.”

Ah! little did I then think I was ordained so soon to quit that humble Cottage for the Deceitfull Pleasures of the World. Adeiu Laura.

Letter 5th

One Evening in December as my Father, my Mother and myself, were arranged in social converse round our Fireside, we were on a sudden greatly astonished, by hearing a violent knocking on the outward door of our rustic Cot.

My Father started—”What noise is that,” (said he.) “It sounds like a loud rapping at the door”—(replied my Mother.) “it does indeed.” (cried I.) “I am of your opinion; (said my Father) it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door.” “Yes (exclaimed I) I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance.”

“That is another point (replied he;) We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock—tho’ that someone DOES rap at the door, I am partly convinced.”

Here, a 2d tremendous rap interrupted my Father in his speech, and somewhat alarmed my Mother and me.

“Had we better not go and see who it is? (said she) the servants are out.” “I think we had.” (replied I.) “Certainly, (added my Father) by all means.” “Shall we go now?” (said my Mother,) “The sooner the better.” (answered he.) “Oh! let no time be lost” (cried I.)

A third more violent Rap than ever again assaulted our ears. “I am certain there is somebody knocking at the Door.” (said my Mother.) “I think there must,” (replied my Father) “I fancy the servants are returned; (said I) I think I hear Mary going to the Door.” “I’m glad of it (cried my Father) for I long to know who it is.”

I was right in my conjecture; for Mary instantly entering the Room, informed us that a young Gentleman and his Servant were at the door, who had lossed their way, were very cold and begged leave to warm themselves by our fire.

“Won’t you admit them?” (said I.) “You have no objection, my Dear?” (said my Father.) “None in the World.” (replied my Mother.)

Mary, without waiting for any further commands immediately left the room and quickly returned introducing the most beauteous and amiable Youth, I had ever beheld. The servant she kept to herself.

My natural sensibility had already been greatly affected by the sufferings of the unfortunate stranger and no sooner did I first behold him, than I felt that on him the happiness or Misery of my future Life must depend. Adeiu Laura.

Letter 6th

The noble Youth informed us that his name was Lindsay—for particular reasons however I shall conceal it under that of Talbot. He told us that he was the son of an English Baronet, that his Mother had been for many years no more and that he had a Sister of the middle size. “My Father (he continued) is a mean and mercenary wretch—it is only to such particular freinds as this Dear Party that I would thus betray his failings. Your Virtues my amiable Polydore (addressing himself to my father) yours Dear Claudia and yours my Charming Laura call on me to repose in you, my confidence.” We bowed. “My Father seduced by the false glare of Fortune and the Deluding Pomp of Title, insisted on my giving my hand to Lady Dorothea. No never exclaimed I. Lady Dorothea is lovely and Engaging; I prefer no woman to her; but know Sir, that I scorn to marry her in compliance with your Wishes. No! Never shall it be said that I obliged my Father.”

We all admired the noble Manliness of his reply. He continued.

“Sir Edward was surprised; he had perhaps little expected to meet with so spirited an opposition to his will. “Where, Edward in the name of wonder (said he) did you pick up this unmeaning gibberish? You have been studying Novels I suspect.” I scorned to answer: it would have been beneath my dignity. I mounted my Horse and followed by my faithful William set forth for my Aunts.”

“My Father’s house is situated in Bedfordshire, my Aunt’s in Middlesex, and tho’ I flatter myself with being a tolerable proficient in Geography, I know not how it happened, but I found myself entering this beautifull Vale which I find is in South Wales, when I had expected to have reached my Aunts.”

“After having wandered some time on the Banks of the Uske without knowing which way to go, I began to lament my cruel Destiny in the bitterest and most pathetic Manner. It was now perfectly dark, not a single star was there to direct my steps, and I know not what might have befallen me had I not at length discerned thro’ the solemn Gloom that surrounded me a distant light, which as I approached it, I discovered to be the chearfull Blaze of your fire. Impelled by the combination of Misfortunes under which I laboured, namely Fear, Cold and Hunger I hesitated not to ask admittance which at length I have gained; and now my Adorable Laura (continued he taking my Hand) when may I hope to receive that reward of all the painfull sufferings I have undergone during the course of my attachment to you, to which I have ever aspired. Oh! when will you reward me with Yourself?”

“This instant, Dear and Amiable Edward.” (replied I.). We were immediately united by my Father, who tho’ he had never taken orders had been bred to the Church. Adeiu Laura.

And this only the beginning…See Love and Freindship for the full text.

Book Review: Mrs Scrooge

Mrs Scrooge FB

Scrooge doornail-dead, his widow, Mrs Scrooge, lived by herself in London Town.

This will be a short review because it’s a short book, though stuffed full of tasty bits like an excellent Christmas pudding. Carol Ann Duffy is our poet laureate, who has well and truly broken the mould of this venerable institution, “the first woman, the first Scot, and the first openly LGBT person to hold the position.”

In Mrs Scrooge, Duffy takes that unseen heroine – who knew Scrooge had a wife that could put up with his penny-pinching ways? – and gives her A Christmas Carol of her own. Mind you, Mrs Scrooge can pinch a penny till it screams for mercy, but she cares for the planet and campaigns against consumerist excess. She also has a cat – I don’t imagine Mr Scrooge would have seen the point of feeding a cat unless it paid for itself in dead mice.

This curious melange of Dickens’ novella and current ecological concerns means that the Fezziwigs, Bob Cratchit, and Tiny Tim are all part of of the story, along with feminism and the patchwork of villages buried under the concrete of Heathrow Airport. It’s held together by Duffy’s poetry, Mrs Scrooge’s surprising love for Ebenezer Scrooge, and Posy Simmonds’ illustrations.

A lovely, heartwarming story, with the same belief in human goodness as A Christmas Carol.