Something for children to get their teeth into: World Book Week 2019

5803022F-E37C-41CF-922E-3D9A679688ECI’m always delighted to visit schools, whether or not it’s World Book Week (which it just has been, in March). Taking a group of 9 – 13 year-olds on an illustrated tour through Dante, Greek mythology and the First World War (Ante’s Inferno) or Doctor Faustus, demons and Elizabethan Magic (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst), and seeing their eyes light up at the richness, complexity and sheer power of stories is hugely inspiring for a writer. But one of my school visits this year took a different form, one that gave me more than the usual butterflies as I wrote the date in my diary. Not just butterflies, in fact. Trepidation.B1BA6FB4-9FC8-40A5-9541-67A315DC616E

Stretham Primary is a lovely village school in a not particularly well-heeled part of Cambridgeshire, in which quite a number of children qualify for pupil premium. I’ve visited a couple of times before and been bowled over by the warmth of my reception and the eagerness with which the 9 – 11 year-olds lap up facts about Dante Alighieri, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan natural philosophy and the Faustian pact. It never ceases to sadden me how the book world generally underestimates young people, considering all these themes far too adult for them to understand. From my experience at Stretham, not only do children have no problem grasping them, they are also excited by stories that give them something to get their teeth into.5798B2EE-E72A-4CC2-A2DA-1507C388A9DF

So why the trepidation?

Well…. this time, the children were doing something for me.

As a writer you hope you’re on the right track, that what grabs you will grab your intended audience: but there’s nothing like being able to put this to the test. I needed to try out my latest work in progress, and ten 11 year-olds had bravely volunteered to read The Fall of a Sparrow and tell me what they thought. At 50,000 words this was quite a commitment. And scary for me… what if none of them got beyond the first chapter, the first PAGE?

Shortly before the day of the visit, I received a package in the post. Feedback …eek.

Taking a deep breath, I went through all the painstakingly written comments – and breathed out again.

07F08712-8B97-4318-8E31-2763BF32907FThe children had enjoyed the story. They got the characters, the situation, they felt with Eleanor – the heroine – in her predicament, as she delved deeper and deeper into family history, uncovering a tragedy that had never been confronted before. If some of the readers felt that occasionally, too much description held up things, they still all wanted to keep turning the pages, all the way to the end. And now they couldn’t wait for my visit so they could pepper me with questions – about the characters, the ideas, what it’s really like being at a boarding school (since that’s where the story is set) and most of all, how soon will The Fall of the Sparrow be published so they could ALL read it?

Ah, now that really is the question….

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How to drive your audience crazy

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Exhibit A: exquisite torment (the programme, not the play).

I am not a great user of Facebook.  If I post something and it gets a handful of likes and the odd comment, I’m doing well. So I was all the more surprised recently when something I put up sparked a whole host of likes, comments and discussion from a wide range of people, for whom I’d clearly touched a nerve.

What can it have been been – political?  No no, stay clear of all such, say I. The dreaded B word? As if. Enough misery about that as it is.

 

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Stygian gloom of modern restaurants (Photo by Damien Petit on Unsplash

No. All I did was upload an example of a blight that has been seeping gradually into the printed world for the past few years, until now it affects every play, opera, concert and musical programme, magazine, brochure, exhibition text, restaurant menu and just about everything printed you can think of. Even websites aren’t immune. It is a kind of exquisite torment dreamt up by designers to tempt you with what looks like an interesting, important piece of writing – only to make it impossible for you to read it. Pale grey text on off-white paper. Small chunks of green writing set by themselves – presumably to highlight their meaning – in yellow background boxes. Items on menus printed in such tiny point sizes, diners need a pocket magnifying glass if they aren’t to go hungry (not helped by the fashion for restaurants to plunge their customers in Stygian gloom so no one can see the menu anyway). As a way to drive your audience crazy, it can’t be beaten.

 

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Art by Yasmina Reza at the Oxford Playhouse

Look, I know my Great Age is part of the problem. The majority of designers and editors, presumably under 40, are blithely unaware that lavender type on mauve paper is illegible for Oldies Like Me. But a heck of a lot of Oldies Like Me go to the theatre, restaurants and art exhibitions, and I can’t help feeling that if the directors of these have gone to all the trouble to commission articles from distinguished writers and experts, why wouldn’t they want a large proportion – who knows, perhaps even the majority – of their clientele to read them? What, for goodness sake, is wrong with black and white?

So back to exhibit A, above. I had never seen Yasmina Reza’s brilliantly witty, poignant play about the balance of power in longterm friendships, until it came to Oxford Playhouse last month. Intrigued, I badly wanted to read the interview with the playwright in the programme and was faced with not only pale type on pale paper but, ye gods, splashes of paint daubed across the text (a, you know, clever reference to the play’s title, Art). OK, so I managed eventually, the next day, with the aid of bright sunshine, but it was a slow process. Whereas if it had been black on white, like the article I’m writing here, I’d have skipped through it like a young fawn.

 

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Skipping through black and white print like…er… one of these.    Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Perhaps I should start a Campaign for Printing in Black and White, snappily known as CAMPBAW.

I could be on to something, you know.

 

 

 

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog.)

How to Show your Power and Wealth

Gainsborough's Family AlbumTowards the end of 2018, my attention was caught by the title of an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery: Gainsborough’s Family Album. His family, eh? Here was this skillful 18th century painter, famous for his ability to paint flattering likenesses of wealthy aristocrats; how would this translate to his own nearest and dearest?

Intrigued, I went last month… and was bowled over. Portrait after portrait of Mary and Margaret, Gainsborough’s daughters, captured together at various stages of their lives, exude a tenderness, emotional depth and freshness you won’t find in any of his more traditional commissions. The artist’s love and fatherly protectiveness burst out of these paintings, making them some of the most beautiful and heartbreaking portraits ever created.

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Mary and Margaret Gainsborough

 

Not that you’d know that from the exhibition’s curators. Reading Waldemar Januszczak’s perceptive review in the Sunday Times, I felt, with him, a familiar weariness at the snide, superficial tone that has spread like a canker throughout the museum and gallery world in the last few years. Art is no longer to be judged on its own merits; all that counts is the money the paintings represent. According to the curators, writes Januszczak, ‘at every step of his progress, Gainsborough used his family as cheap models to advertise his talents and try out different approaches …The pictures hung opposite each other in his grand new house, where their job was to impress visitors with first-hand examples.’

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Gainsborough’s cousin, the Reverend Henry Burroughs, painted perhaps to show the artist’s ‘skills to potential patrons in his cousin’s circle.’ Or not. 

At this point my forehead hits the palm of my hand.

Because I recognise this mean perspective. Visiting the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall, I found the same narrative hammered home in every room. Bess of Hardwick had the lavish staircase built ‘to impress visitors with her power and wealth.’ Each piece of furniture had this function, as did all the paintings in the long gallery. It’s now a family joke with us that ‘Going to See Some Power and Wealth’ has become shorthand for visiting stately homes. Yes, rich people have always liked to show off; but no one buys an armchair just to Show Their Power and Wealth. Needing somewhere to sit might have something to do with it. Equally, many wealthy aristocrats were genuinely interested in art, fostering young painters and building up important collections for which we are all the richer. The founding collections of The National Galleries of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland came from rich art enthusiasts who bought these paintings not because they were expensive, but because they considered them beautiful.

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Roof garden, Cardiff Castle

We don’t have to read this tosh, I know. But I find it sad that visitors, including schoolchildren, are being shortchanged and patronised in this way. The opportunity is there to spark interest – even a little – in the art around them; instead, they are encouraged to sneer at the art’s being there at all. On a recent visit to Cardiff Castle – one of the most glorious examples of Gothic Revival architecture – the young guide told us next to nothing about the designers, painters, gilders, sculptors, wood carvers and others responsible for its exquisite craftsmanship, preferring instead to stress – repeatedly – the fabulous wealth of the 3rd Earl of Bute, how he and his family ‘had a pretty nice life, no worries at all.

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A Gothic Revival dream: the great hall at Cardiff Castle

Now that kind of statement should ring alarm bells. It is in tune with the general Money = All That Matters narrative in current museum curation and cannot be the whole story. Sure enough, talking to some of the older – and clearly more personally committed  – guides gave a poignant picture of a loving husband and father creating a haven of beauty and warmth to ensure his family had the opposite of his own loveless childhood. Suffering from Bright’s disease all his life, in 1900 the earl died, aged only 58, of kidney failure. Fifteen years later, his son Ninian, 32, was killed at the Battle of Loos.

No worries at all? I think the Bute family had a few.

The solution? Keep visiting these beautiful places. Just take what the guides and curators tell you with a hefty pinch of salt, or ignore it all together. A shame, but there it is.

And if you missed Gainsborough’s Family Album at the National Portrait Gallery, don’t despair; you’ll find the cream of the exhibition – those lovely portraits of his daughters – at the National Gallery nearby.

 

Did Scrooge dodge a bullet?

a christmas carol 2Happy New Year all!

Right, I’ll kick off 2019 with an admission: until a month ago, I’d never read A Christmas Carol.

Yup, you read that right. Charles Dickens’s much-loved (and pleasingly short) fable about mean old Scrooge being ‘woke’ (right up there with modern idioms, that’s me) and swapping his miserliness for kindness and generosity… to be honest, I knew the story so well I really thought I had read it. But in preparation for a family visit to David Edgar’s adaptation of the book for the Royal Shakespeare Company, I thought I’d take up the original – and boy, am I glad I did.

The Real McScrooge

Because if I hadn’t, I might really have thought that what we saw in Stratford was the Real McScrooge. Or rather, I’d have suspected some of the odder scenes as being fashionably updated, but not known exactly where Dickens ended and his adaptor began. The more skilled the adaptor – and Edgar is very skilled – the more the original writer’s essence is blurred, twisted and, frankly, betrayed.

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Fezziwig (John Leech) – ruined by his own generosity. NOT.

I’ve banged on about this kind of thing before: the sickly, bogus, supposedly A A Milne quotes littering the internet, David Hare’s pride at writing ‘genuine’ Virginia Woolfisms. But increasingly I feel I’m holding up an umbrella against a tsunami of ‘improvements’ meted out to just about every great literary figure no longer alive and therefore unable to protest, by contemporary writers who feel with astonishing arrogance that They Can Do It Better. It’s not good enough for Edgar that Dickens allows avarice to enter the soul of the young Scrooge, in spite of the generosity of his employer, Fezziwig. There has to be a reason. So Edgar makes Fezziwig profligate and unwise, leading to bankruptcy and death; from which harsh lesson, ah, of course, Scrooge derives his obsession with money. Cause and Effect, satisfying present day rules of character creation.

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Appalling poverty: the workhouse at St Marylebone

Dickens: a fomenter of class warfare?

Except that Dickens didn’t give a fig for these rules. He saw no need to explain why Scrooge becomes a miser in the first place; it was just in his character. Nor, in Dickens’s world, are kind and generous people punished for being so: his whole point is that people have a choice in the way they behave towards others. Nor is he an overtly radical writer, though from Edgar’s adaptation you could be forgiven for thinking so. Yes, he showed the appalling effects of poverty, hunger, sickness and lack of education on the poor but his aim was to arouse the consciences of the wealthy to relieve that want, not to foment class warfare. When Scrooge in the book visits (invisibly) his nephew’s Christmas party, he finds a happy group of people enjoying each other’s company, making him regret his refusal to take part; what he doesn’t find is a heartless political discussion, blaming poor parents for sending their 4 year-old children down the mine so that they can spend their earnings on gin, and (highly suspect in days before contraception) a particularly unpleasant woman congratulating herself and her husband for ‘only going for our fifth child when we knew we could afford it.’

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Wentworth Street by Gustav Dore

A Trio of Entitled Brats

I have no problem with Dickens himself appearing as a character in this adaptation, discussing with his friend Forster the scoliosis and other deformities suffered by seamstresses and milliners, as well as child labour in factories and mines. This is a clever device that teaches us much about the terrible conditions around him that Scrooge (and others like him) refuse to see. I do mind when Edgar alters A Christmas Carol itself because, well, how dare he? How dare he write a scene in which Mrs Cratchit humiliates her husband for not standing up to Scrooge, when poor Bob has no chance of doing that and keeping his job, as his wife (in the REAL Christmas Carol) knows?  Or have Bob Cratchit, thinking himself dismissed, give his employer a hefty piece of his mind, purely for an easy laugh from the audience who knows better? Or, most puzzling of all, distort the charmingly rumbustious scene of the family that Scrooge might have had (if he’d married his childhood sweetheart, Belle) by making the children a trio of entitled brats complaining at the presents brought home by their loving father? If that was really what Dickens wrote, wouldn’t Scrooge feel he’d dodged a bullet there, rather than yearn for the love and joy he could have had?

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The happy family scene (Arthur Rackham) Scrooge might have had. Where are David Edgar’s entitled brats?

Dickens it ain’t

It was a good show, with some outstanding acting (eg Gerard Carey playing the over-tragically-written Bob Cratchit) but it wasn’t Dickens.  By all means, David Edgar, write your Victorian Christmas morality tale, you can even borrow heavily from the great man himself. Just don’t call it A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, OK?  Because Dickens it ain’t.

 

 

(Adapted from an article on Authors Electric)

Pantomime Blossoms in Cardiff Castle

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Dick Whittington at the Oxford Playhouse

Right then, hands up: who’s been to a pantomime this year?

For those who’ve never had to sit in a British theatre among a deafening audience of 6 year-olds, dodging penny sweets being hurled from the stage, while gamely shouting ‘He’s behind you!’ to Snow-White, or Aladdin, or Little Red Riding Hood, some explanation is needed.  And my goodness, have I tried to explain this particular loud, brash, clunkily scripted, outrageously overacted, joyfully strewn with terrible puns and altogether much-loved piece of our Christmas tradition to bemused visitors from other countries down the years… never with the slightest success, unfortunately. You just have to be there, really.

Or not.

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… and none more surprising than appearing in a pantomime.

But it only struck me recently (slow, that’s me) what an odd collection of stories makes up the pantomime repertoire. Fairy tales such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, national legends like Robin Hood and Dick Whittington, all well and good… but – Robinson Crusoe? How did Daniel Defoe’s novel about shipwreck, isolation and the survival of the human spirit transmute into a raucous children’s entertainment, complete with slapstick, word play and (presumably – I haven’t seen it) pantomime dame and villain?

 

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Cardiff Castle: transformed into a Gothic fairy tale by the 3rd Marquess of Bute

Now, I have a hunch that the answer lies in Cardiff Castle. (Oh, no it doesn’t, I hear you say. Oh yes it does, say I. Oh no it – hey, that’s quite enough.) In the mid 19th Century, the fabulously rich 3rd Marquess of Bute restored a section of this Norman ruin into a glorious expression of the Gothic Revival movement. Every wall, ceiling, door, window, fireplace and stairwell is beautifully painted, carved, moulded, decorated with marble, stone and plaster sculptures, furnished with fine wrought iron handles, knobs and railings, giving an overall impression of warmth and delight in craftsmanship. IMG_1508Above all it feels a very happy place, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the day nursery designed for the marquess’s four children. Half-way up the walls, an enormous frieze of hand-painted tiles shows dozens of storybook characters in one continuous, colourful narrative. And yes, you’ve guessed, the stories chosen are all (with the puzzling exception of Lady Godiva) ones that form classic pantomimes: Jack and the Beanstalk, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, St George and the Dragon, Robinson Crusoe.

THE BLOSSOMING OF PANTOMIME

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Robinson Crusoe on the trail of the Good Fairy. Er…

I doubt that this was an intentional homage to the genre on the part of the marquess: rather, the (7-league) boot is on the other foot. This mixture of tales from the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, the Arabian Nights, folk legend and early novelist Daniel Defoe, is what constituted English mid-19th century children’s literature, just at the time when pantomime – around since Roman times – blossomed into the form we know today. (The Victorian playwrights and theatre managers probably balked at including Lady Godiva in their repertoire.)

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Zzzz… A peripatetic Sleeping Beauty

So pantomimes are all drawn from 19th century children’s stories – well, duh. There needs no Puss-in-Boots, come from the grave, my lord, to tell us this. But seeing the evidence so beautifully painted here made me grasp the point in a way I hadn’t before. What lucky children – as our slightly sardonic guide never ceased reminding us – to be brought up in such delightful surroundings.

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No pantomime – as yet – about Lady Godiva

Lucky or not (and the Bute family had its fair share of tragedy but that’s another story), we are all the richer for this stunning artistic heritage. Go and see Cardiff Castle if you can – the nursery is just one of a feast of glorious rooms open to the public.

 

 

 

(From an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog)

Never mind Fake News: what about Fake Quotations?

Not long ago I was idly flicking through The Sunday Times when this snide little piece in the media gossip column, Atticus, caught my eye:

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Atticus, The Sunday Times, 21.10.18

Amusing, yes, especially for Sir David Hare.  It’s not his fault that the public don’t know Woolf’s work well enough to distinguish which words she genuinely wrote and which are the ones that he, adapting a novel about Woolf for the screen, makes her say. How hilarious that Hare’s clever line is now attributed to the author herself! And how naïve of the academic, bless them, to confuse a fictional film with a biopic! I mean, who does that?

No one, obvs.

Except the countless people on the internet who now attribute Hare’s line to Woolf. QED.

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Richmond – a Fate Worse Than Death, as Virginia Woolf never said. (Getty Images)

 

Does anyone else hear a great clunk of irony in Atticus’s stonkingly patronising attitude to the academic? She or he is the only person in this sordid little anecdote to care about what a writer did or did not write.  That Hare line will now be attributed to Woolf by innumerable people (students, readers… good heavens, writers, even) because it feels right.  Just as we have fake news stories that are believed because they feel true to some people, not because they are (Brexit will give us £350 million per week for the NHS, Obama is a Secret Muslim, Trump will Make America Great Again), the internet is awash with fake quotations from famous literary figures because people who don’t bother to read the actual works feel these are the kinds of things their authors would write. When the truth (ha, the truth) is that the literary figures in question would stab themselves with their own quills rather than write the kind of tosh often attributed to them.

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A. A. Milne: abused by gloopy so-called Winnie-the-Pooh quotes. (AP Photo)

The most abused author in this respect is A A Milne, who in his Winnie-the-Pooh books created some of the most delightful, subtle, understated, poignant, funny, moving dialogue that has ever or will ever be written; yet I estimate around 90% of so-called ‘A A Milne’ quotes spread gloopily over the internet like Pooh Bear’s own beloved hunny are meaningless platitudes made up by idiots who think it’s the kind of sweet, cutesy thing Pooh would say.

Of course, this travesty only works if people don’t know the original books well enough, and the sad truth is that the Disneyfication of Winnie-the-Pooh has swamped a classic that many of my and my parents’ generation knew by heart. The same trick would never work with Shakespeare, for instance. If I tried to attribute a line to the great bard like, ooh, I don’t know, how about,

Never was bear more wickedly traduc’d,

I’d have all the scholars down on me like a shot.

The works of Virginia Woolf and A A Milne, on the other hand, are clearly barely known by hordes of people who use the internet, and I’m willing to bet there are a great many more literary figures whose coinage is being debased in this way.  I’d love (but also hate) to know who they are.

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Pooh Bear: wickedly traduc’d

So just think, Grant Tucker of Atticus and Sir David Hare: one day in the future there may be all sorts of fake Tucker and Hare quotations littering people’s brains, things you never wrote and would never dream of writing.  Not so funny then, eh?

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric)

 

 

3 Reasons for my Shameful Secret

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Biscuits or books?

I have a shameful secret. My book shelves are full of books I haven’t read. Shocking, isn’t it? You’d think that instead of browsing Blackwell’s and Waterstones for the latest hot reads, I’d get through the stack building up at home first. Good housekeeping, surely. Like eating all the biscuits in the tin before going out to buy more.

Cider with RosieWell, not really. For a start, less than half the titles stretching out until the crack of doom across my walls are down to me. When, many years ago, my husband and I united our separate collections of 500 or so each in marriage, I looked forward to throwing out the many duplicates that must occur. There were 6. From which one can only conclude that either we complemented each other nicely, or had absolutely nothing in common. I wish I could remember what those 6 books were, as that might shed some light on the situation, but I can’t. Cider with Rosie, possibly, and The Catcher in the Rye. Certainly not Science Fiction, Fantasy, Travel, Anthropology, Psychology, Cell Biology, History, Biography, Classical Music, Wood Engraving or a free copy of the Book of Mormon picked up in Salt Lake City on a gap year holiday. In other words, my undergraduate accumulation of Eng Lit underwent a rather exciting broadening of horizons, thanks to its new shelf fellows.The Catcher in the Rye

Since then our store has only grown, with beautiful Folio Society editions of the great classics rendering redundant all the old dog-eared paperbacks (which I still can’t bear to throw away). And I have to admit that an uncomfortable proportion of all our books are ones I’ve bought, Fully Intending To Read One Day but have not, as yet, got round to.  There are various reasons for this:

  1. The author is well-known but doesn’t grab me,
  2. The book looks dauntingly thick.
  3. The title puts me off.

Pathetic, really.

The Once and Future KingSo I have resolved to tackle the backlog, beginning with a book that comes into Category 3, in spite of its passing 1 and 2 with flying colours. I have huge admiration for T H White (1), whose The Once and Future King is one of the best books I have read in my life; and, far from being of a daunting width (2), this one is pleasingly slender. But –  Mistress Masham’s Repose? It sounds like a twee fest of Miss Muffet clad little girls playing in a prettily decorated wendy house.

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I could not have been more wrong. Wronger I could not have been. Mistress Masham’s Repose turns out to be a glorious riff on 18th century literature, with Gulliver’s Travels at its heart but sweeping in references to Alexander Pope, Dr Johnson and a whole sheaf of other literary figures. Mistress Masham herself doesn’t even figure in this delightful tale (it’s just the name of an island in the parkland of a vast, crumbling stately home); the heroine is Maria, a brave and resourceful 10 year-old orphan who, stumbling one day on a hidden colony of Lilliputians, battles to protect them from her evil governess and the governess’s crony, a most unchristian vicar. I love the way T H White makes absolutely no concessions to his readership in what is meant to be a children’s book, though if I’d tried to read it as a child I probably would have taken a different view. Gullivers TravelsA thorough knowledge of Gulliver’s Travels, including the lands of Laputa and the Houyhnhnms, is taken for granted, and much of the dialogue is in a flowery 18th century English, to the point where Maria wonders whether she too might start speaking in Capital Letters. Yet somehow the richness of the story and the sheer powerfulness of the characters win through and all I can do is kick myself for missing out on this wonderful read for so long.

Still, I’ve learnt my lesson. Now for the next in my treasure of neglected works.

Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.

Erm…

 

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)