19 February 2014

Reading and Writing

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson 5/5

An astounding work of great intricacy; a non-linear exploration of what might have been; an authentic account of London in The Blitz, brutal yet poignant; an exquisite portrayal of a middle-class British family beginning in Georgian times.

Atkinson poses a theoretical question: what might happen if we had the chance to live our lives again? Could we alter the outcome of events both minor and monumental? But this is not time travel; nor is it reincarnation. Protagonist Ursula Todd begins life on a snowy night in 1910, an event she will revisit numerous times. Sometimes she reaches childhood, other times well into adulthood but whenever her life ends it recommences, right back at the beginning.
There are numerous episodes of deja vu. Some events repeat identically, others are altered by fate or by choice. This is however not merely about how a single little girl's life might unfold. The Butterfly Effect is in full force. In addition to assembling a complex and appealing puzzle, Atkinson has crafted a magnificent tribute to a bygone era. Her descriptions of London and Berlin, before, during and after both Wars are so authentic she might actually have lived through these periods herself.
With effortless style she recreates the culture, feel and ambiance of long forgotten times. Life After Life is the kind of novel that lingers in your mind long after you turn the final page, or in my case listen to the dulcet, and very English tones, of Fenella Woolgar on the audiobook. A hugely satisfying experience and one I won't spoil by revealing further details.

Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane  4/5

Nothing is ever quite what it seems in this nightmarish tale of murder, madness and trickery, set entirely on a fictional Island where the criminally insane are kept out of harm's way. Ostensibly, Teddy Daniels is a US Marshall, arriving to investigate the apparent disappearance of an inmate.
From that point the plot twists and thickens and both reader and Daniels have difficulty separating reality from fantasy. What seemed simple becomes complex. There are codes for the Marshall to decipher and anagrams for the reader to ponder. The facility is part hospital/part prison and Daniels is convinced the Management are covering up a program of unauthorised experiments on the patients. Lehane does a fantastic job of slowly lifting the lid on a tortured mind.
Even as the final crescendo is approached we can't entirely distinguish the good guys from the bad. Not until the closing chapter and in a chilling epilogue does the author reveal the full horrifying story.

Much of my reading now is in the form of audiobooks. Days are so full with shuttling the children around and running errands that I spend any spare daylight following my current favourite hobbies: genealogy and running. Reading/listening is strictly a night time affair.
Instead of creative writing, I have been writing about my family history, researching the subtle details where possible and putting them into my own words. Although you can never run out of ancestors to reasearch, I have reconstructed sufficient families now (about 800 marriages and 3,000 individuals) to know my inlaws from my outlaws! The names, dates, occupations and addresses are important but hanging flesh on those old bones is what brings the past to life.
Run, write, read, listen. Breathe... and repeat!

16 February 2014

The Laughing Policeman, Charles Penrose Cawse (1873-1952)

Growing up in England in the mid half of the last century it was impossible to avoid the infectious novelty song, The Laughing Policeman. Charles Penrose (his stage name) first released this in 1922, after shamelessly poaching both the melody and the laughter from a much earlier effort by American George Johnson.

Clearly they didn't get out much in those days! Penrose went on to record a multitude of broadly similar laughing songs, singing and chortling his way around the Music Hall venues of Britain until his demise. Are the songs funny? Well, a little lame really, but they are sweetly evocative of those gentler times.

On an expeditionary trawl through my thousands of pages of UK Census returns I alighted on the entries for a family of Oldings headed by widow, Elizabeth Louiza. You'll see how deeply I am diving in my gene pool when I explain that Louiza was the wife of my First Cousin, four times removed - that is to say, her husband's Grandfather was my Great (x5) Grandfather on my paternal side.

Okay! I hear you. Enough of this genealogical nonsense. Well, as I browsed a jpeg of the very page on which distant Louiza had written her household details in 1911, I was struck by the wide range of occupations among her adult children and the five boarders lodging with her. I believe Louiza must have handed the form to her boarders and asked them to pen their own details because her neat hand gives way to a series of scrawling, thick-nibbed inscriptions. Among the odd skills my research has honed is decyphering old handwriting. The boarders are:
Eric Lenars            23 single     Music Hall Artiste
Charles Pen Caws 35 married   Comedian
Hettie Pen Caws    32 married  Comedienne
Arthur Ewart          24 single     Music Hall Artiste
Bottom of the list is a son of two of the boarders, Charles Alexander Penrose Cawse age 5y 5m.

You don't come across fancy occupations like this too often. Maybe they were famous? So I Googled the married couple and, bingo! Despite the theatrical licence with his spelling, Charles is definitely the rascal who would eventually entertain the masses with his Laughing Policeman. 'Hettie' is his first wife Harriett Lewcock. (Modern comediennes would doubtless consider hers a name to conjure with!) Neither Ewart nor Lenars seem to have left traces but the Penrose star shone brightly for several decades. All thanks to some slightly hilarious giggling and chuckling.
I'm assuming the troupe of entertainers were lodging in Peterborough during a tour of shows. For a while, at least, evenings at 12 Cromwell Road must have been a riot, considering the heady mix of residents, Commercial Traveller (Rep for a stationery company on closer inspection), Pianoforte Teacher, Railway Labourer, Tailor, two Music Hall Artistes, a Comedian and a Comedienne. Or did Louiza sigh with relief and bolt the door firmly when they left, trailing jocularity and mirth in their wake?

02 February 2014

Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton

Another in my sequence of reading matter where the book pales in comparison with the film adaptation. Jurassic Park the book reads at times like a scientific manual, at times like an essay, but rarely like a full-throttle adventure story. It would take visionary Stephen Spielberg to achieve that. But I'm getting ahead...
The book's premise is marvellous, extracting dinosaur DNA from the stomach contents of flies preserved in prehistoric amber; the tropical island setting is mysterious; and the attempt to explore the moralities of cloning is admirable, but taken as a whole the novel is unconvincing and its execution, disappointing.
Crichton approached the work from a scientific standpoint but rather than allow a flow of knowledge from author to reader through character dialogue and through demonstration, Crichton inserts heavy chunks of exposition which would sound at home in a crusty textbook. When he does use dialogue, it's quite unnatural; nobody spouts numerous paragraphs of science without a single response from his listener.
I wanted to feel the shock, excitement and terror of the outsiders invited to the island, then trapped when the dinosaurs ran amok, but they scratched their chins and stood around observing the animals as if they were exhibits in an average zoo. The visitors' reactions were calm and studious. Perhaps that's how an aloof scientist might respond but not a paleontologist or a botanist or even a mathematician, surely? Incidentally, nobody mentioned that the dinosaurs featured date mostly from the Cretaceous period. I suppose 'Cretaceous Park' doesn't quite have the same ring!
A further blow to credibility came when the Park's owner brought his young grand children to stay. I doubt Crichton had spent a lot of time with children to judge by their antics; the eight year-old girl has the voice and vocabulary of a four year-old, really; the eleven year-old boy sounds like a university student. What do they say, "never work with children and animals?"
At very unlikely moments, sometimes under threat of imminent peril, instead of running for their lives, characters ponder the ethics of cloning, and lengthy, thinly disguised essays trip from their lips. Stephen Spielberg cut through the mire and brought a concise and exciting story to the big screen using only a fraction of the novel. Spielberg wisely kept scientific details to a jokey, theme-park-exhibit minimum, and relegated ethical issues to a minor role. After all, people want to experience Tyrannosaurus Rex, not debate him.
Crichton's follow-up, The Lost World, together with material excised from the original novel, would provide the basis for two less successful sequels. I hear a fourth film, Jurassic World, is in the works for 2015. Crichton is no longer with us but his original idea lives on.