Saturday, 12 July 2014

Three reasons to love Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle



 1 The ending.
Somewhere around the middle of the book, Cassandra’s trying to decide if she envies Rose or not. She says:
“When I imagine changing places with her I get the feeling I do on finishing a novel with a brick-wall happy ending–I mean the kind of ending when you never think any more about the characters.”
And so of course this book isn’t going to have that kind of ending. I’m not going to spoil it for you, just in case there’s any chance you’re reading this and you haven’t read ICTC, but let me tell you that Dodie Smith provides an ending which could not be more perfect, leaving you looking hopefully into the future with Cassandra and giving you plenty of scope for thinking about all the characters. Thank goodness no publisher nagged her into providing a sequel!

2 The sense of time.
The trouble with journal books and letter books is that usually they don’t account for the amount of time the character has to spend actually writing in between all the things they’re doing. In ICTC, we get the sense of how long writing takes – sometimes Cassandra tells us that it has taken her two or three days to complete an episode – and also a sense of her in the present, as she writes: think of the first sentence, “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” and the end, “Only the margin left to write on now. I love you, I love you, I love you.” There are no slips: we learn straight away that she’s practising speed-writing which is why she writes so much even before anything begins to happen, the now around her is beautifully integrated with the events she’s describing.

3 The evocation of a time gone by.
It didn’t occur to me when I first read this that it was anything other than a contemporary novel when it was written. I was struck by the differences between then and now: the idea of them living on hand-outs in a castle, the treatment of Cassandra by everyone as if she were a child though she’s 17 or 18 (it’s not made clear) and her – I can’t think what to call it – backwardness? innocence? when it comes to men. The whole attitude to love and marriage really: it all seems deliciously old-fashioned. The thing is though, when you sit up and take notice, this is a book published in 1949 about the 1930s. By 1949, that decade before the war must have seemed like another world. And once you realise that, you start to notice how much there is in the book that’s there just to give you a glimpse of this other world. Think of the part when Simon and Cassandra stand in the village taking in the sights and sounds and smells, or the off-hand mention of the sheep in Hyde Park (it’s true, see http://www.peterberthoud.co.uk/2012/03/hyde-parks-shepherd-his-sheep/). It’s a very conscious evocation of the past.

I could go on. I could tell you that it’s laugh-out-loud funny in places and in others full of the joys and agonies of unrequited love. I could witter on about the marvellously ‘captured’ characters and settings, and the funny little digs at ‘arty’ people. I’ll stop now though, but for one thing: read it or reread it. It’ll make you smile.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Mind’s Eye


The other day when I was listening to the Archers someone started talking to me. Nothing unusual there. My children are unable to understand, it seems, that in order to know what’s going on in a radio programme you have to be able to hear it. There are no visual clues to keep you going for the duration of whatever vital exchange they need to have right that minute. You can imagine, can’t you?

Me: deep sigh

Child: “Blah, blah, blah.”

Me: flaps hand towards the radio

Child: “Blah, blah, blah-di-blah.”

Me: grabs remote and turn up radio

Child: “Oh, err, sorry. I’ll come back later.”

Me: “Well, if it’s not important...”

So the next day, we’re all sitting there and somehow the Archers comes up again. They want to know why their dad and I listen to it. Nothing ever happens, they say, and they’re right. In fact, on the occasion when there has been a Big Story, you know, Ruth having an affair (or not, I can’t remember if she actually Did It), Nigel falling off the roof, those things irritate me. What I like about the Archers is the buzz and hum of life, the mundane nothingness of the everyday. I used to like that about Coronation Street until it turned all Eastenders and I stopped watching.

OK, so by now maybe you’re thinking this is supposed to be a blog about books, why’s she wittering on about soap operas. Well, what happened was this: I had a little moan about the kids interrupting when I was listening to the Archers, and one of them asked if I had a picture of each character in my head, if I actually knew what they looked like. And I had to say no, not in the way that they were imagining. Their idea, I suppose, is that you sit there with a sort of Archers movie playing in your head. It isn’t like that at all though, any more than when you read you have the movie of the book playing in your head. However I do think that if a book or a radio programme or an audio book captures you sufficiently, in some way it must stimulate some visual sensors in your brain as well as the auditory and understanding ones. Even though you can’t see it, you have a sense that you have seen it. Think of it like this, you know what your husband or your mother or your dog looks like, don’t you? But when you’re not with them, you don’t have an actual image of them in your head, just a sense of them.

There is one downside I have found with this whole inner visualisation thing. Sometimes when I’m driving, if I’m listening to something interesting, or making up stories, there are moments when I have to remind myself to focus on what’s ahead of me on the road instead of what I can see with my mind’s eye.

Does this make any sense to you? What I’m talking about is the imagination. It’s the same thing you get when you write. You don’t need a photo of your character to know you’d recognise them if you came across them in the street. And what you’re hoping to do as you write is to implant that visual sense of the character in the mind of your reader.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Poetry is next to godliness?



I like to read, as you know, but I find myself all at sea with poetry. I am a prosaic sort of person, I suppose. I like a narrative, ideally not too tricksy, although the fantastic and the satirical suit me fine, better probably than the strictly down-to-earth. But poetry? That’s another matter. Too insubstantial? Maybe. Too intense? Sometimes. Too opaque? Almost always.

That’s not to say that I never enjoy poetry. I loved Keats and the metaphysical poets when we did them at school; that process of analysis that unlocked the meaning and left you, comprehending, to enjoy the words. I loved, still love, lots of funny poems for children: Edward Lear and Ogden Nash, A. A. Milne and Lewis Carroll, Michael Rosen and, oh, lots of others. I know some by heart, not from learning them, just from reading them over and over. When I was at school I used to sit near the poetry shelves in the library and pick up Ted Hughes when I was bored. I couldn’t get much meaning from it, but there was something in the language and the violence that appealed to the teenage me. And there’s the moment when only a poem will do, breakups and deaths, that sort of thing, bound to send you scurrying to the shelf for Emily Dickinson.

But these days, given the choice, do I make for the poetry shelves in a bookshop? No I do not. Do I keep a slim volume of someone or other by my bedside? That would be no too. I do not seek out poetry.

Poetry, it seems to me, is rather like faith. I do not get poetry in the same way that I cannot believe in God or gods. There is no logic in faith that satisfies me. And yet... I see people who do believe, perfectly sane, intelligent, admirable people, so logically there must be something, mustn’t there? And now and then, the faintest whiff of what it must be like to believe comes my way, funerals, weddings, births, that sort of thing, all heightened emotions and that feeling that there must be some greater being organising all this.

How is this like poetry? Poetry is a state of mind, I think. Some people hear or read poetry and something in it speaks to them, not necessarily everything, it could just be the sound of the words, or a single combination of words, or an image or a feeling conveyed. For me, it has always taken more than this. I need complete understanding, every word accounted for. That’s why I appreciated those poems I studied and picked apart at school I suppose, and the read and re-read A. A. Milne et al.

Lately though, I have begun to listen and enjoy poetry without necessarily understanding each word. I have the writers’ group I belong to to thank for this. I hear poetry read by its authors and I get to ask questions: “Why this word?” “Why does this line run on?” “Did you intend this effect?” It’s extraordinary, thinking about poetry in this way, from the poet's point of view, like something moveable and changeable.

So I have decided to embrace poetry. I would like poetry to speak to me. As I rooted around the house for poetry books (I found a few, no Ted Hughes though), I thought that what people need in order to enjoy poetry more is just to be exposed to it more. And since I have at my disposal the tame primary school where I go to run the library and talk to children about books, I came up with a poetry project I could run at school: lots of poems read, some learned, lots written. And the teacher I approached said yes, she’d love me to do this, she didn’t think she was good at poetry. Me neither, I said, but I’m hoping this will help.