I offer here, free of charge and entirely without obligation, a solution to the age-old problem of how to get your son or daughter out of bed in the morning. Whisper in his or her ear, as they burrow down under the duvet trying to get away from you, the words, ‘It’s snowed,’ and, I guarantee, the child in question will rocket out of bed as if a Saturn V launcher has ignited under the mattress.
It will help, of course, if it actually did snow overnight (which it did yesterday here in London) and, even more so, if this is the first snow of the winter (which it was).
There, problem sorted. The said child (or children) will be downstairs, dressed, breakfasted and ready to go within five minutes. All you then have to do is find the slope and off they go!
Once upon a time, tales tell of a man, slim of hip and youthful of face, who appeared in the homes of many, many people, speaking to them, face to face, although he was far away. Some said he had already passed into the West, yet his voice was still heard, and the tale of his searchings passed down the generations: the Dark Ages; the Trojan War; Alexander the Great; a pair of jeans that wouldn’t cut off circulation to his nether regions. Were these tales based on truth, was there a real man behind them, distinct from the later accretion of legends? Join me now, as I go In Search of Michael Wood…
The man who would come to be known as Michael Wood first appears in the historical record in a far distant age: the 1970s. To give you some idea of how different the world was then, if you wanted to communicate with someone, the best way to do it was by sitting at a table, getting a piece of paper, covering it with illegible squiggles that was known as ‘handwriting’, wrapping it up and licking a little square of paper to stick on it, and then putting it into one of the magic red boxes that were all over the country in the 1970s. Mind, you had to select the correct red box. The one for this form of communication was round and chest high, with a slot in it; there were other, square, red boxes, taller than a human being, which people disappeared into for varying lengths of time, standing within them immobile while holding a wire attached object to their head. Some archaeologists suggest they were recharging their neural implants, but there are no records of neural implants that early, so it remains mysterious what they were doing in these red boxes.
Now, legend has it that Michael Wood was a historian. Let’s look at the evidence. Here are some pictures of historians through the ages:
And now, here’s a purported photo of Michael Wood:
Clearly, this is not the portrait of a historian.
Then what is he?
Reading some of the other books to which his name was attached, I thought he might be a writer. This hypothesis still might hold true, if we argue that In Search of Myths & Heroes is mainly the work of later redactors, drawing together some common tropes in the Woodian corpus to make a reasonable but not, to the expert eye, totally convincing facsimile: viz, the recurring travel motif, the anecdotes of discomfort, the well-turned phrase. But, being the work of a redactor (or redactors – there may have been many involved in producing this text from within the Woodian community), it lacks the touches that confirm authenticity, in particular the overall sense that this narrative is going somewhere.
But if Michael Wood is a writer, then what to make of these supposed appearances on film and TV? I would like here to propose a hypothesis. What we see on screen is, in fact, a projection of the dreams and desires and hopes of the Woodian community that produced these texts: the shifting image (so like the chthonic world of the subconscious) coalesces to produce, for a fleeting hour, the ideal ‘Michael Wood’, that the Woodian community be reaffirmed in its commitment to its Woodian ideals. And thus the Woodian cult continues.
Signs and wonders are tricky things to base decisions upon because by their nature they are amenable to different interpretations. God only rarely issues bullet points (the 10 Commandments were the last I can think of) and He never does Powerpoints.
Just back from an almost rain-free week in the Lake District (it poured on the day we arrived and again when we left, but was dry in between [for my friends abroad, just take it as read that this is the single most important news I can relate when talking about a holiday in Briain]). Here are a few photos to give a taste of what we saw and did. Walney Island turned out a little different to what I had expected (this was the edge of the Island of Sodor in the Rev. W. Awdry’s imagination). Still, we thought it would make a moody shot for our proposed boy band (plus one) album cover.
The next is Isaac investigating for himself the ancient conundrum of the chicken and the egg.
Matthew, the lord of Piel Island…
…and Theo, leaping up the Old Man of Coniston like a mountain goat.
And, finally, me setting off with Isaac on my back to climb the Old Man of Coniston.
And me, a few hours later, questioning my earlier decision.
Ah, the pitfalls of being a franchise author. Now, I thought it was simply a matter of chucking out a few half-formed ideas to your writerly minion and then sitting back and counting the royalties as they flow in, while throwing the odd (get it?) groat to your amanuensis but, it turns out, that is not the case at all. So, here you are, Dean Koontz, bestselling author, owner of the best hair transplant this side of Elton John, dog owner and, now, faithful Catholic after a rather dodgy period in your youth when you embraced some distinctly dodgy form of nihilistic transhumanism (I must be one of the few people to have read Koontz’s 1976 novel A Darkness in My Soul which backs up this contention), and now, after working all your life seven days a week turning out four novels a year you think maybe it’s time to sit back, work the kinks out of your typing fingers and let someone else bring in a few of the bucks.
See, you’ve got this bestselling character that your fans have really warmed to – and he’s a bit of a personal favourite too – and your agent mentioned this manga stuff to you a while back and you still remember the sting: ‘What’s more, you don’t even have to write it, Dean. The characters are so strong, they’ll take the strain even if someone else does the writing.’
And you think, ‘Yeah… They are, aren’t they. It’d be kind of interesting to see how someone else sees them – at least till the movie deal comes through. Why not?’
‘Of course, you get script approval, Dean.’
Turns out, that was just as well. Ozzie Boone black? Well, you could live with that, even if it wasn’t how you saw him, but then you read the plot and, yes, it’s yet another mad-fundy-Christian-poisons-trick-or-treaters potboiler. Look, you know potboilers, you’ve stewed enough plots in your time to feed half the homeless in Pico Mundo, and even you wouldn’t stoop that low, even if you weren’t, actually, you know, a Christian rather than someone like, er, Fred Van Lente, who apparently gets all his knowledge of this obscure sect from the more lurid episodes of cop shows and the anthropological investigations of Salon and the Huffington Post.
You take a deep sigh. You run a red line through that particular plotline. You suggest something else and you resolve that, in future, you’ll write your own books. Leave the author farming to Clive Cussler and James Patterson; you’re an honest workman and you resolve to remain so.
I’ve now read six of Andrew Norriss’s books and I think I know what his work is about: every story I’ve read has been a drama of the good. But if drama requires conflict, how can there be drama where all the characters are good? That is the question Andrew Norriss seems to me to be setting out to explore in his books, and his writing, and its success or otherwise, represents an answer to that question.
‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’ Thus begins Anna Karenina, with one of the most famous quotations in literature. And of course, if happy families are all alike, they must be inherently less interesting than unhappy ones. But thought and experience both tell me Tolstoy was wrong. Happiness ramifies, producing unique results; misery contracts, collapsing everything down to a cold, solid core. In this, Dante was right over Milton: the devil in the Inferno is encased in the ice of his own evil, immobile, but seeking to draw everything and everyone down into his own eternal stasis, whereas the Satan of Paradise Lost is active and engaged, more of a character than anyone else.
Here, Milton and other writers and film makers have fallen foul of one of the great shortcuts of dramatic art: it’s much, much easier to write an interesting evil character than a fascinating good one. Why should this be? One answer is that evil, at least in its everyday modes, is encoded into our substance. You don’t have to be an Augustinian to note the evidence of something very like original sin in our substance: simply think of the ease, the positive relief, with which good habits are shucked off when compared to the struggle against bad and destructive habits. We are creatures bent out of true, and thus it is much easier for a writer to understand what is so readily to mind in his or her own nature.
But goodness, true goodness, now, that is something else. Rarely encountered, even more rarely written about, it is almost impossible to capture in words or images precisely because it escapes the categories of thought: the normal binary operations of our mind (black/white, right/left) fail when we encounter true goodness and real evil. Evil is not the opposite of good, it is its absence, the hunger of the abyss for a being it is determined to expunge.
We are empty creatures, seeking fulfillment, and goodness is that fulfillment, in all its various, simple, ordinary forms. Each happy family is unique; it is the unhappy families that are alike, tending towards the dark attractor that is the cause and gourmet of human misery.
Andrew Norriss, is his deceptively slight books, provides a glimpse of escape from that core of despair. In his stories, good people are, genuinely, good, and work towards good ends, yet the threads of circumstance and the workings of providence (which is not without its own humour) conspire to provide the narrative tension that, on the artistic level, pulls the reader along, a smile of unknowing recognition on his face, towards the denouement. For, somewhere in our hearts, buried under the hurts of lives, we know that, really, this is what the world should be like – and will, one day, be.
OK, if dogs could talk, what would they say? It’s easy with cats: they, of course, can talk, but they’re obviously not going to have conversations with the servile class. But dogs, what would they say?
At first thought, I’d have said, ‘Bone!’ or ‘Walks!’, with great enthusiasm. But that is to do down dogs – and besides, that’s pretty much what they always say when they can talk (or, in the wonderful film Up!, ‘Squirrel!’). You know, that’s too easy. Sure, some would go for the monosyllabic whuff of enthusiasm, but others would be more considered, more thoughtful, more mellow: they’d drop their head to one side, loll their tongues and say, ‘Bones, walks, sleep, huh, huh, master, love.’
Yes, I set off this review trying to make a case for literary dogs and I don’t seem to have made it to my destination. Neither does the Dan man (the world’s hardest working author): the protagonists of Fiefdom are dog soldiers, genetically modified to protect mankind and then, finding themselves the only survivors of an Ice Age, living on in the U-Bahn tunnels under Berlin. But, being dogs, once, their vocabulary proves rather limited, and though the book has all the Dandroid’s usual narrative drive, there’s a limit to how many times you can hear a dog soldier saying, ‘Tougher and tough’ before it begins to pall a little. Still, for a blood-soaked light tube train read (particularly appropriate given its U-Bahn setting), it rattles along as quickly as the new rolling stock on the Metropolitan line.
In honour of the wonderful Jasper Fforde, and in particular his Thursday Next novels where the eponymous heroine enters Bookworld to save it from various menaces and perils, I’ve renamed the previously rather boring ‘book review’ section of my blog, ‘Adventures in Bookland’. And, in truth, that’s a far better title, for after all, when we read a book we do go on an adventure. If it’s a non-fiction book, then there will be intellectual adventure to go, hopefully, with narrative excitement and verbal fizz; if it’s a story, then, hopefully, there will be dragons!
And, yes, you’ve guessed it (the title does rather give it away), Jasper Fforde does give us dragons, or rather one (with a couple of slither ons at the end). He also gives us a version of Britain, the Ununited Kingdom, split into a myriad little principalities, rather as if GK Chesterton had sat down (on a sturdy, reinforced chair!) and divided the country up on Distributist lines. I particularly enjoyed the Troll Wall, in the far North, built to keep out what it says in its name – no doubt many Westminster politicians, looking with dismay at what is happening north of the border in this 2015 election year, would feel the same.
But now, enjoyable though The Last Dragonslayer is, can I ask a question. When was the last time we had, in books, a proper, fire breathing, maiden eating, gold hoarding, evil serpent? I know there’s been Smaug in the recent Hobbit films, but they hark back to Tolkien (to a greater or lesser extent!). But, since Smaug, have there been any properly evil worms? Thinking back over the last, er, rather too long, but let’s say forty years or so, I can remember Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern, the Luckdragon of The Neverending Story, Gordon Dickson’s Dragon Knight stories, the aerial division of the armies in a modified Napoleonic war in the Temeraire series, and the dragons in George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (which I’ve not read or watched, but have been unable to avoid). At worst, these dragons can be called dangerous, but most are positively cuddly (or, at least, as cuddly as fire-breathing beasts with scales can reasonably be expected to be).
Now, I understand that authors might want to play with the stereotype, to break it down and try it from a new angle, but really, don’t you think we have a whole new stereotype here? Now, dragons are always, always, misunderstood creatures, cruelly picked on by a humanity fearful of ‘the other’. Indeed, it’s become such a stereotype that the reward of the unexpected awaits the first writer to make the dragon back into what it was, traditionally: cold, calculating and thoroughly, completely evil.
There, I’ve given you the idea, free and gratis. Now get out there and write it. I, for one, will read it, and, on this day of St George, cheer the dragonslayer!