Let your heroines eat cake.

‘A very famous editor once said to me: “Barry, tell them what they eat.”’

pizza on brown wooden board

                        Food matters to children.                                 (Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com)

This is one of the delightful pieces of advice given by Barry Cunningham on writing for children. He doesn’t say who the famous editor is – Kaye Webb? – but I love this nugget for its apparent triviality, actually giving an extremely important message.

Picnics, Parties and Midnight Feasts

Food matters to children. It’s a big part of their everyday lives and if you want them to get lost in your story, better make sure you don’t let the action go on too long without feeding your characters. Yes, you can have scene breaks, but every now and then your readers will want to know what your hungry hero will be having for supper; even more so, if supper happens to be a fabulous party, or a midnight feast planned in the dorm.Malory towers Enid Blyton totally got this: remember all those picnics enjoyed by the Famous Five, or the illicit night time snacks shared by boarding school girls in Malory Towers?

Bunbreak and Vicarious Scoffing

More recently J K Rowling began and ended many of the Harry Potter books with lavish feasts in which everyone ate their favourite dishes; and one of the brilliant downloaddetails Robin Stevens puts into her Murder Most Unladylike series is the crucial part Bunbreak plays in the lives of her characters, in which the total absence of buns is irrelevant; it’s the different biscuits offered, depending on the day, that matters.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeMuch as I’ve enjoyed all the vicarious scoffing kindly supplied by the authors above, for me one children’s author towers above all the rest: C S Lewis. His evocation of the sheer sensuous pleasure of food – the smell, touch, taste, texture – is enough to both whet the appetite and satisfy it at the same time. I challenge anyone reading the Narnia boThe Last Battleoks not to want to dive into the ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ hot drink the White Witch gives Edmund in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or slake their thirst with the delectable fruit that refreshes the exhausted heroes at the end of The Last Battle (my inspiration for the feast in Elysium that Ante and her companions tuck into in Ante’s Inferno, as I wrote about here).



Not Just Children

So I’m absolutely with Barry Cunningham in this, except I’d say he doesn’t go far enough. It’s not just children whose mouths will water at descriptions of glorious nosh; it works for adults too. No one knew this better than Charles Dickens, whose books abound in depictions of food so tempting the reader can practically taste the ‘red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam.’ (A Christmas Carol). There’s a joyfulness in these lines, a delight in the simple pleasure of good things to eat, that makes the reader feel all’s well with the world. You know that at some point in the story, the characters will sit down and partake of all these yummy things.

baskets of oranges and apples

‘Cherry-cheeked apples and juicy oranges’ as in A Christmas Carol.  (Photo by Kira Schwarz on Pexels.com)

plum pudding

Adults need glorious nosh too

Do Jane Austen’s heroines live on air?

Which is why I felt so sorry for the heroine in Autumn de Wilde’s new film of Emma. (If you haven’t seen it, do – it is beautifully acted and directed and designed, costumes and set beyond praise.) Wonderful feasts are repeatedly laid out – for weddings, Christmas, social gatherings – with marvellous looking Regency meats, trifles, jellies, cakes and baskets of strawberries – and poor Emma is never allowed to taste a thing. All around her people tuck in with relish, while she never even picks up her cutlery. It is difficult, of course, to look elegant while eating, and certainly wading into such irresistible things as macaroons is used to comic effect with Miss Bates and Harriet Smith – but I can’t help feeling that is a mistake. Call me a killjoy, but the subliminal message is that only clumsy, unattractive women eat; luminously beautiful ones like Emma Woodhouse don’t. They live on… what, air?

butter cookie cake toppings with fruits

                                     Let poor Emma eat cake.                                              (Photo by Matheus Guimarães on Pexels.com)

Jane Austen would have had no time for such nonsense. Food for her was a serious, practical necessity, something her heroine had as much right to enjoy as anybody else. Indeed, Emma’s tactful ploys to get round her father’s instinctive fear of over- feeding his guests is a running joke in the story.

How ironic, then, that in de Wilde’s film, food appears to have no value for Emma herself; nor does it seem to have occurred to the director that starving the heroine might be a problem. But speaking as a devourer – in more ways than one – of great classic fiction, driven by real, flesh-and-blood characters – it is, believe me.

(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog.)


For a faithful adaptation of Dickens, The Muppet Christmas Carol still comes top

photo of christmas balls

               Tis the Season to be Jolly.                       Photo by Hert Niks on Pexels.co

And so draws to an end the first decade of the 21st Century. While all over social media, people are gratuitously summing up their achievements of the last 10 years, for me it’s the last 10 days that loom largest in my consciousness. Or perhaps, conscience. Because, dear reader, it appears that over this last Season To Be Jolly I’ve managed to upset quite a number of people on Twitter. One person even blocked me, hilariously, as he did it quickly before I could do something to deserve it. Rather like a small child in the playground running to teacher, just in case the child he’s just biffed thinks of  biffing him back.

The A Christmas Carol Question

So what did I do to inspire such fear and loathing? Er, well, I expressed an opinion. Like, you know, the other 330 million Twitter users. What about? Oh, just a TV programme. A mini-series. Well, a Classical Serialisation in fa – look, it’s not my fault that the A Christmas Carol Question raises its snowy head every year, is it?a christmas carol 2 Competition among theatre, film and TV companies, from the humblest to the loftiest in the land, as to who can make the biggest mess of Charles Dickens’s great 1843 novel has become a national sport. This time last year I cavilled at the liberties taken by the RSC in their production; I can now say these fade into the tiniest speck of candied fruit in Tiny Tim’s plum pudding compared to the monster served up by BBC 1 over three (three!) evenings in Christmas week.plum pudding

I was willing to give it a go. Honest. (Just as I gave Andrew Davies’s Sanditon a go, all the way to the end of Part 1, when an appalling piece of very unAusten writing and characterisation spared my enduring the next 7 episodes.) But the stretching of Dickens’s slim novella into 3 hours of television didn’t bode well.

Sweary, gloomy and with no narrative drive

Say what you like about Dickens, he knew how to write a cracking good story. The lessons that  mean old Scrooge has to learn never slow the pace of the action, while the reader is drawn into the worlds of Christmas joy and plenty, past regrets and sorrows and the very real poverty and want Scrooge has ignored all his life. In other words, narrative drive is what matters if you want your audience to stay with you, and this was exactly what Stephen Knight’s ‘adaptation’ (‘rewriting’, I’d call it) lacked. Tectonic plates move faster than Knight’s scene setting, and when the first 15 minutes established nothing more than a grumpy, sweary (oh yes, the F word. A lot. Why?) man chuntering around a bare office in Gloomy Victorian London, sniping at his clerk, I gave up. Where Dickens writes with crispness, a quick wit and a sense of mystery, this production steamrollered its way along, ponderous and boring beyond words.C Carol

Worse, Knight felt the need (like David Edgar) to add backstory and plot alterations to the original – only his additions were much sillier. It’s not enough, for instance, for Marley to haunt Scrooge as a warning: he has to be properly motivated. Enter the Roman Catholic doctrine of the afterlife: Marley’s motive for saving Scrooge is to spare his own soul years in Purgatory.

Dickens, a traditional Anglican living in highly Protestant Victorian England, would have been appalled at this solecism, and the fact that Knight could cheerfully shoehorn it into Dickens’s literary and religious world shows how little he cares about the original work.

Version 2

No room for Purgatory in the Anglican church



Back to Twitter. Well, The Sunday Times journalist India Knight (no relation I hope…. Gulp) happened to ask the Twitterati what they thought of the production and I – among many others – gave my view, adding that for a truly splendid adaptation, people should look no further than The Muppet Christmas Carol. While I’ve never received so many Likes for a tweet before, a few readers, as mentioned, took it badly. What baffled them – to the point where they could barely spit out their sarcasms – was that I should rate a film starring a bunch of puppets headed by a Green Frog, that faithfully told Dickens’s marvellous story, over a slow, turgid, foul-mouthed 21st century steampunk version, that didn’t.


                                    Perfectly able to portray Bob Cratchit                                    Photo by Глеб from Pexels

Personally I’d call that muppetist.








(From an article originally published on Authors Electric Blog.)


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.


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.

workhouse st marylebone

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.’

wentworth st by gustavee dore

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?

belle.jscene by arthur rackham jpg

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)