Sunday 19 February 2017

A Freckled and Frivolous Cake

I realise I haven't read every writer on the planet, but I think I can say with some certainty that nobody writes like Mervyn Peake. Monkey and I have been relishing 'Titus Groan' over the last few months; it took a long time because she kept going away, but also sometimes we had to pause and appreciate the incredible way he expresses himself. Just a couple of chapters will make you think that every other metaphor or simile you have ever read is trite and predictable. We kept the dictionary handy to enhance our appreciation of his vast vocabulary.

The title character, Titus, makes only limited appearances in this book, the first of a trilogy, intended to be a much more extensive collection of novels, cut short by Peake's untimely death. The book is more the tale of a year in the life of Gormenghast castle: its weird occupants, its weird traditions and ceremonies, and the rise from obscurity of a young man called Steerpike (not only does he have a fantastic vocabulary, but Peake has the most fabulous of character names). On the day Titus is born Steerpike escapes from a locked room high in the castle by climbing out of the window, up the walls and across the roof, ending up in the secret attic of Lady Fuchsia (daughter of Lord Sepulchrave). She is partly horrified at having her privacy invaded but also strangely fascinated by this outsider materialising into a life that has been isolated and self-centred. The reader watches then with increasing incredulity as Steerpike wheedles his way into the upper echelons of Gormenghast society, and brings about some pretty fundamental changes to the status quo. Having said that, not much really happens, and the story is about the people and the place, and, even more, the atmosphere.

"Titus watched Keda's face with his violet eyes, his grotesque little features modified by the dull light at the corner of the passage. There was the history of man in his face. A fragment from the enormous rock of mankind. A leaf from the forest of man's passion and man's knowledge and man's pain. That was the ancientness of Titus.
Nannie's head was old with lines and sunken skin, with the red rims of her eyes and the puckers of her mouth. A vacant anatomical ancientry.
Keda's oldness was the work of fate, alchemy. An occult agedness. A transparent darkness. A broken and mysterious grove. A tragedy, a glory, a decay.
These three sere beings at the shadowy corner waited on. Nannie was sixty-nine, Keda was twenty-two, Titus was twelve days old." (p.102)

Here is Steerpike, ingratiating himself with the Prunesquallors; I love the tiny comment at the end, so subtle, that indicated the effect he seems to have on people:

"'We shall dress him in pale grey,' she said.
'Who, blood of my blood?' cried Prunesquallor. 'Who is to be apparisoned in the hue of doves?'
'Who? how can you say "Who?"! This youth, Alfred, this youth. He is taking Pellet's place. I am discharging Pellet tomorrow. He has always been so slow and clumsy. Don't you think so? Don't you think so?'
'I am far beyond thinking, bone of my bone. Far, far beyond thinking. I hand over the reins to you, Irma. Mount and begone. The world awaits you.'
Steerpike saw that the time was ripe.
'I am confident I shall give satisfaction, dear lady,' he said. 'My reward will be to see you, perhaps, once more, perhaps twice more, if you will allow me, in this dark gown that so becomes you. The slight stain which I noticed upon the hem I will remove tomorrow, with your permission. Madam,' he said, with that startling simplicity with which he interlarded his remarks, 'where can I sleep?'
Rising to her feet stiffly, but with more self-conscious dignity than she had found it necessary to assume for some while past, she motioned him to follow her with a singularly wooden gesture, and led the way through the door.
Somewhere in the vaults of her bosom a tiny imprisoned bird had begun to sing." (p.172)

The castle as character:

"Autumn returned to Gormenghast like a dark spirit re-entering its stronghold. Its breath could be felt in the forgotten corridors - Gormenghast had itself become autumn. Even the denizens of this fastness were its shadows.
The crumbling castle, looming among the mists, exhaled the season, and every cold stone breathed it out. The tortured trees by the dark lake burned and dripped, and their leaves snatched by the wind were whirled in wild circles through the towers. The clouds mouldered as they lay coiled, or shifted themselves uneasily upon the stone sky-field, sending up wreaths that drifted through the turrets and swarmed up the hidden walls." (p.180)

Over the course of the year Steerpike works his way up, pandering to the weaknesses of the aristocracy and skilfully removing others in positions of power, and you get the distinct feeling he has few limits to his ambitions. In this little moment Fuchsia seems to have a premonition of were he is headed:

"Breathing in the sharp air she gulped and clenched her hands together until her nails bit at her palms. Then she began to walk. She had been walking for over an hour when she heard footsteps behind her and, turning, saw Steerpike. She had not seen him since the night at the Prunesquallors' and never as clearly as now, as he approached her through the naked autumn. He stopped when he noticed that he was observed and called:
'Lady Fuchsia! May I join you?'
Behind him she saw something which, by contrast with the alien, incalculable before her, was close and real. It was something which she understood, something which she could never do without, or be without, for it seemed as though it were her own self, her own body, at which she gazed, and which lay so intimately upon the skyline. Gormenghast. The long, notched outline of her home. It was now his background. It was a screen of walls and towers pocked with windows. He stood against it, an intruder, imposing himself, so vividly, so solidly, against her world, his head overtopping the loftiest of its towers." (p.254-5)

This one is probably my favourite passage from the book and exemplifies the style so perfectly. Swelter is the chef, the ruler below stairs, and Mr Flay the ruler above, being Lord Sepulchrave's personal servant. He could have written simply that they glared at each other, but why would you, when you could say this instead:

"Swelter's eyes meet those of his enemy, and never was there held between four globes of gristle so sinister a hell of hatred. Had the flesh, the fibres, and the bones of the chef and those of Mr Flay been conjured away and away down that dark corridor leaving only their four eyes suspended in mid-air outside the Earl's door, then, surely, they must have reddened to the hue of Mars, reddened and smouldered, and at last broken into flame so intense was their hatred - broken into flame and circles about one another in ever-narrowing gyres and in swifter and yet swifter flight until, merged into one sizzling globe of ire, they must surely have fled, the four in one, leaving a trail of blood behind them in the cold grey air of the corridor, until, screaming as they fly beneath innumerable arches and down endless passageways of Gormenghast, they found their eyeless bodies once again, and re-entrenched themselves in startled sockets."

What I enjoyed so much was that the book has writing like this, but at the same time he is beautifully subtle and knows exactly the right word: "The long corridors were susurrous with rumour." (p.421). Reading Titus Groan I was reminded of a writing advice article in the Guardian, from Roddy Doyle that said "Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, e.g. 'horse', 'ran', 'said'.", and it made me think that he was right, if you don't know a fancy word for something don't go looking for one, it will just sound wrong. But Mervyn Peake does not sound wrong. I have to assume he just had these words in his vocabulary and uses them with both precision and creativity, often taking words that were familiar and using them in unusual ways. The language is unexpected and challenging but never pretentious or inauthentic. I enjoyed reading a word, not understanding it, and then rereading the sentence with new appreciation once the meaning was clear. 
Here are the words we looked up:

So we have jumped eagerly into the next book; will baby Titus ever get out of the smothering clutches of Nannie Slagg, will Barquetine get a wooden leg, will Cora and Clarice ever get their golden thrones, will Lady Groan be suffocated in her sleep by the horde of white cats and just what is Steerpike hoping to discover with his network of holes and mirrors? 

Thursday 16 February 2017

lots of blocks

I have not completed my transition from knitter to crocheter, but the process seems to be well underway. I decided I wanted to have a go at granny squares so my lovely friend Julie bought me this book, 200 crochet blocks by Jan Eaton, and I have been working my way though it. What with the Monkey Quilt and the sofa blanket we don't actually need another thing to cuddle on the sofa with, so I am making this one for my sister Claire. Granny squares come in three kinds: ones that go round and round from a central ring, ones that go back and forth in lines and ones that combine the other two methods. As usual for me I have decided not to plan either a design or a colour scheme and will just go with the creative flow and come up with something wild and wonderful. I would certainly recommend it as a learning tool for new crocheters, as you can master new techniques in each square, which, like the hexipuffs, are a discrete project in themselves, and if something turns out to be a bit complicated you can just unravel and start a new one. I am being very disciplined and sewing in the ends as I go, since the prospect of having 144 squares with ends to sew in all in one go is just too depressing to contemplate. Some are done with a lovely long-colour-change yarn that saves the bother of having to keep joining new colours.

Brave New World

'Brave New World' by Aldous Huxley is such an iconic book, one of many to imagine an alternative reality, but rereading it it feels dated and almost quaint; some parts have fantastic futuristic technology and other parts are stuck firmly in the 1930s. Set several hundred years into the future it gives us a world where God has been replaced with Ford, but only in that babies are now created on a production line rather than via the traditional method. The first few chapters detail this process for the reader, so they understand how the manipulation of human life has become the basis for a new pre-determined social caste system that dictated how the whole of society is organised. The developing foetuses are enhanced or 'poisoned' to differing degrees and then conditioned as children (raised by the state of course) to accept their place and to be unquestioning participants in the life they are allocated. 

" 'Stability,' said the Controller, 'stability. No civilization without social stability. No social stability without individual stability.' His voice was a trumpet. Listening they felt larger, warmer.
The machine turns, turns and must keep turning - for ever. It is death if it stands still. A thousand million scrabbled the crust of the earth. The wheels began to turn. In a hundred and fifty years there were two thousand millions. Stop all the wheels. In a hundred and fifty weeks there are once again only a thousand million; a thousand thousand thousand men and women have starved to death.
Wheels must turn steadily, but cannot turn unattended. There must be men to tend them, men as steady as the wheels upon their axles, sane men, obedient men, stable in contentment." (p.44)

"Before Bernard could answer, the lift came to a standstill.
'Roof!' called a creaking voice.
The lift man was a small simian creature, dressed in the black tunic of an Epsilon-Minus Semi-Moron.
He flung open the gates. The warm glory of afternoon sunlight made him start and blink his eyes. 'Oh, roof!' he repeated in a voice of rapture. He was as though suddenly and joyfully awakened from a  dark annihilating stupor. 'Roof!'
He smiled up with a kind of doggily expectant adoration into the faces of his passengers. Talking and laughing together, they stepped out into the light. The lift man looked after them." (p.56)

Bernard Marx (a bit of an outsider) and Lenina Crowne take a trip together to the Reservation, a place outside Civilization, to see how the 'savages' live. There they meet Linda, a woman from civilization, abandoned pregnant and forced to live and raise her baby as an outcast. Bernard arranges to bring Linda and her now grown son John back to civilization. John, having been neglected by his alcoholic mother, has a view of life and morality formed by a weird combination of living amongst the Indians and by reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare (the only book available to him) and he experiences the delights of civilization with increasing horror. He becomes a minor celebrity with people vying with each other for invites to meet him, but lacking the childhood conditioning that would enable him to fit in it is obvious things are not going to work out well. 

The morality of quasi-compulsory sexual promiscuity is an extension of the lack of any real bonds between people, they have no family bonds of course and they are discouraged from having ongoing relationships. What is most disturbing about the book is the way that social control is achieved through a passive, coddled, drugged and entertained population; there is no violence or repression, everyone just does what is expected of them because they do not have the ability to think otherwise, even those at the top of the hierarchy. In fact, it is not merely in his precognition of test tube babies that Huxley is so accurate, but also the advent of virtual reality, mass consumerism and a disposable culture. I was wrong, it is not quaint. The more I think about and reread odd pages the more disturbing it becomes. In a way the story of John's experiences are a distraction from the story of the society, the undercurrent of which is the real purpose of the book. Here, I love the wonderful juxtaposition of the idyllic children's garden with the political message: 

"Outside, in the garden, it was playtime. Naked in the warm June sunshine, six or seven hundred little boys and girls were running with shrill yells over the lawns, or playing ball games, or squatting silently in twos and threes among the flowering shrubs. The roses were in bloom, two nightingales soliloquised in the boskage, a cuckoo was just going out of tune among the lime trees. The air was drowsy with the murmur of bees and helicopters.
The Director and his students stood for a short time watching a game of Centrifugal Bumble-puppy. Twenty children were grouped in a circle round a chrome-steel tower. A ball thrown up so as to land on the platform at the top of the tower rolled down into the interior, fell on a rapidly revolving disk, was hurled through one of other of the numerous apertures pierced in the cylindrical casing, and had to be caught.
'Strange,' mused the Director, as they turned away, 'strange to think that even in Our Ford's day most games were played without more apparatus than a ball or two and a few sticks and perhaps a bit of netting. Imagine the folly of allowing people to play elaborate games which do nothing whatever to increase consumption. It's madness. Nowadays the Controllers won't approve of any new game unless it can be shown that it requires at least as much apparatus as the most complicated of existing games.'" (p.35)

An interesting reread, and it would be fascinating to know what Huxley might make of the 21st century world.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Two visits to Antony

My February leave week seems to have become our regular time of year for a visit to the boys. Jake has cut his hair and Lewis got a dog (which somehow miraculously managed not to be in the photo, since it had been jumping on us on the sofa for much of the previous 24 hours), but other than that life seems to be pottering on quietly as usual.

Monkey had expressed a need to go fly George (the kite), and so we headed out on Tuesday to Crosby beach where another Antony Gormley work of art is installed. "Another Place" is a collection of 100 cast iron figures (reduced to 84 by the local council in 2007 as a compromise during a debate over allowing the figures to remain on the beach) that stand in isolation looking out to sea. There is a fascinating contrast between the figures that become submerged by the tide each day ...

and those sited further up the beach ...

We were fortunate that the tide was out so we walked barefoot across the sand to visit the Antonys that were further out. It was only looking for references this evening that I discovered that the Liverpool tourist website recommends: "Crosby beach is a non-bathing beach with areas of soft sand and mud and a risk of changing tides. Visitors should stay within 50 metres of the promenade at all times and not attempt to walk out to the furthest figures." 
There was hardly a breath of wind but by walking briskly we managed to get George up in the air, and even Antony had a go a flying him. It's a strangely atmospheric installation and well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area (we got bit lost but the beach parking is well signed from Crosby), particularly if you can go at a less busy time. (Some better photos of them at the original site on Antony Gormley's website.)

Saturday 4 February 2017

The Private Lives of Trees

'The Private Lives of Trees' by Alejandro Zambra is a strange little book that I read (as recommended) in one sitting on Tuesday morning. It is less than 100 pages but packs a lot of emotional impact into them. Julián meets Verónica by chance when he arranges for her to bake a cake for his girlfriend, a relationship that is already disintegrating without him realising. The book covers a few hours of his life as he is watching over his stepdaughter Daniela and awaiting Verónica's return from an evening class, and as the night passes he reflects on his own history and tells Daniela stories about trees. 

"Now Julián has a real family, the kind that spends Saturday afternoons doing science homework or watching Tim Burton movies. Daniela has just fallen asleep, and he strings his ears, anticipating his wife's arrival, but he can only make out, distantly, the hoarse bubbling of the aquarium they set up in the living room a few months ago. Stealthily, Julián approaches Cosmo and Wanda, who continue their changeless voyage through the dirty water, and he observes them with disproportionate attention, his face to the glass. suddenly, theatrically, Julián takes on the attitude of a watchman, a fish watcher, a man specially trained to keep fish from leaving aquariums." (p.44)

It is just a lovely understated little book that works its way under your skin and leaves you wanting things to turn out better for Julián. He is sympathetic because he does not want much from life; he notices insignificant things, and makes them more significant in telling about them. As it gradually becomes apparent that Verónica is not returning he begins to dwell on what the future might hold for Daniela and the line becomes a little blurred as to whether he is living through this fateful night or remembering it from some point in the future. Though written by a Chilean writer I did not get a sense of anything 'foreign' about it, it is very much about the character of Julián.