The wonderful thing about revolting children

How better to mark World Book Day than with a review of a musical based upon a book, featuring one of literature’s greatest bibliophiles? In fact, how better to celebrate a friend’s 30th than with a trip to what is unquestionably one of the best British musicals ever…

Matilda, stage

The last time the RSC produced a musical about a telekinetic child, it became the quickest, most expensive flop in Broadway’s history – Carrie the Musical is a classic, but for all the wrong reasons. [Though, in its defence, and having listened to the soundtrack multiple times, there are some gems there…] In fact, I was geekily pleased that The Stage referenced it in its review of Matilda:

“A quarter of a century ago, the RSC co-produced Les Misérables, which has turned into the West End’s longest-ever running musical and a worldwide hit. Now, via an unfortunate detour with Carrie, one of the most notorious Broadway flops when they transferred it from Stratford to New York, they’ve finally hit the musical jackpot again.”

 Musical jackpot it indeed is. It does a rare job of attracting and entertaining adults and children alike. Last night’s audience seemed to consist of vast swathes of children, and hordes of adults around my age. It’s quite possibly a happy coincidence that many of Tim Minchin’s (writer of the musical) fans are a generation that were the right age to read Matilda when the book came out in 1988.Discovering that we were sat in the middle of a massive school group filled me with terror, but it’s testament to the genius of the production that they stayed (pretty) quiet for the duration. Sure, Jo had to explain why we don’t kick seats or predict lines loudly, but most of the time you barely knew they were there. In fact, early on I was worried that the pace of dialogue and clever literary references might have been beyond a crowd of 8 year olds, but as was pointed out to me, there was also an entire scene focused upon ‘the biggest, most chocolatey burp in the world’, which you probably have to be 8 (or male) to truly appreciate. Looking behind me as the theatre was filled with laser beams, I saw a sea of enraptured faces – beautiful.

For those of us who grew up with Dahl, the texts are almost sacred. I doubt you’d find a British child of the 80s/90s who approves of the Matilda film – it’s not even set in England, for goodness sake! The Witches was a good effort, but they changed the ending; and I can’t ever complain about Jonny Depp so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is ok, but it says something that Dahl himself didn’t like any of the adaptations he lived to see made. The musical is more faithful to the book than the film – the characters look like they’ve stepped out of Quentin Blake’s illustrations (especially Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull) and the key plot elements are there. Yes, there’s the addition of a glorious story about an escapologist and acrobat used a device to tell the audience about Miss Honey’s parents, but it’s so beautifully done that I couldn’t possibly hold it against them. (Matilda tells the story to the librarian and at one point it’s depicted with shadow puppets, which is simply stunning.)

The script and songs also faithfully adheres to Dahl’s distinctive language. The reason why kids love Dahl is because he speaks like they do – or how they’d like to, if they were allowed. The language is often beautifully disgusting, or taps into the ‘nice naughtiness’ you wish all children had. I’d forgotten just how much of a childhood crime it was to call someone stupid, until Mr Wormwood used the word in reference to an adult member of the audience – the children near me gasped at it!

Before I left for the theatre, a friend commented on my Facebook status and said that she predicted I’d be a Bertie Carvel fan before the night was out – she was right. Bertie is the man – yes, man – who plays Miss Trunchbull, and he’s phenomenal. Pam Ferris was a very masculine Trunchbull in the movie, but the musical goes for a man playing a woman as an effeminate gay man angle, which works spectacularly well. Can you picture the Trunchbull doing rhythmic gymnastics with a ribbon? No? Trust me, it works perfectly! [There’s a glimpse of it in the trailer below.] Listen to her song about throwing the hammer, and you’ll start to understand…

The most important element in a musical has to be the songs, and they are marvellous. If you’re a Tim Minchin fan, you’ll know the range of his style, if you’re not then you’re in for a treat. There’s a real mix of raucous lively numbers and beautifully moving ones. Two of my favourites are helpfully ones that are available on YouTube – the winner of ‘best use of swings in a musical’, When I Grow Up which is almost tear-jerkingly lovely; and the guaranteed to have you clapping and cheering Revolting Children.

That boy who kicks off the song is Bruce Bogtrotter – of chocolate cake fame. There’s an entire song dedicated to that scene – called, aptly, Bruce – one could say that only an Australian could write such an awesome song about a Bruce…

I know I’m a massive musical theatre geek, but this is no niche musical. I’d go as far as to say that it’s one of the most accessible pieces of theatre I’ve seen (although One Man Two Guvnors would come a very recent second), and isn’t something parents should begrudge seeing. In fact, I suspect they might enjoy it more than their children do. The major challenge is acquiring decently priced tickets. Last night was clearly a sell-out – unusual for a mid-week evening in term-time – and ‘cheap’ tickets must be nigh-on impossible to come by. But persevere, you won’t regret it.

Becoming a stranger to fiction

In honour of World Book Day on Thursday, and as part of a seemingly annual tradition, I’m going to post some book related posts this week. I’d say ‘reviews’, only I’ve read a shockingly low quantity of fiction since starting Vicar School, and I suspect you won’t be interested in a review of current read The Art of Biblical Narrative. [Though interestingly, the thrust of this essay is whether the Old Testament benefits from being read as story and applying literary criticism techniques.]

This post is a review, and one I think I wrote nearly 6 months ago, but never got around to sharing! The book in question is Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, which was a gift via Kate and a giveaway on her (excellent) book review blog. (In fact, it’s one of two books I acquired that way last summer – the other’s languishing on my TBR pile.)

I’ve read most of Waters’ earlier work – including the notorious Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith – but had never been a massive fan, until I read The Night Watch. This, unlike the others, was set during WW2 and in and about some very familiar parts of London. Plus, it has a non-linear story line and involves the criss-crossing paths of several different people – two story-telling devices which I really enjoy.

Because The Little Stranger was set in a similar era (the immediate post-war years) I had high hopes for it, but I have to say that I was a little disappointed. This was probably owing to two factors:
  1. It had a male narrator. I think I’d assumed that the narrator would be female because in all the other Waters books I’ve read, it has been. I’m not sure why this disappointed me – perhaps because I found the female protagonist fascinating and wanted to know more about her, but if she had told the story things would have been quite different.
  2. It’s essentially a ghost story and I’m not spectacularly keen on ghost stories. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a scary read, it’s just in the best tradition of Victorian gothic writing (a little like Joanne Harris’ early book The Evil Seed which is basically about vampires).
However, I did enjoy reading it. The context is fascinating and I think one that many English people could identify with or at least have some empathy towards. The narrator is a local GP (on the eve of the creation of the NHS) who grew up in the local community, but very much in the working class. Throughout the novel, he is wrecked with class anxiety regarding how his colleagues, the locals and the aristocracy perceive him, yet the plot revolves around his growing relationship with a well-to-do family who inhabit a mansion that has seen better days. It captures the transition of the times well – the doctor fears the new NHS, believing patients would prefer doctors from ‘good’ backgrounds; the family has lost most of its money because of inheritance tax and the war; its son has returned from battle mentally and physically scarred; and the daughter is ‘on the shelf’ at 28.

The ‘little stranger’ of the title is a mysterious presence within the house, who makes itself known in a variety of ways – strange marks, noises, fires and the supposed insanity of its occupants. The problem is that I have little imagination for this kind of supernatural being. In a very rational way, I spent much of the book wondering the house’s occupants didn’t just leave. 

As I read the book within a couple of days, I can safely say that I enjoyed it – I guess I was just expecting something different. The problem is possibly more that I enjoyed The Night Watch so much, and it really was the realistic kind of novel that I enjoy, that this was something of an anti-climax. If you can deal with ghosts though, it’s quite refreshing to read about them in a more modern context. 

The power of a ranting be-quiffed man

Last month marked my one-year anniversary of becoming a fan of Wittertainment – Radio 5 Live’s flagship film review programme, hosted by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode (or, ‘the good doctors’). I’m eternally grateful to the person who, one evening in September, sent me the link to Kermode’s review of Eat, Pray Love, suspecting that I’d be won over by his grammatical pedantry. Won over I was, and the weekly podcast is now something I savour.

The beauty of Wittertainmet is that it creates its own community, akin to a secret society whose members recognise each other not by a secret handshake, but by sly comments relating to 3D films; the addition of words to film titles (the aforementioned Eat, Pray, Love becomes Eat, Pray, Love, Vomit); the Code of Conduct; or unexplained references to that week’s podcast (I once had a text from one such friend which read – apropos of nothing – “while we were sleeping, someone changed the spelling of dilemma…”). Just last weekend a couple of fellow students were discussing at which age their sons could be introduced to 3D films – one was surprised that another’s 3 year old had coped with the glasses, my question was “how did he cope with the 40% light reduction?” and was greeted with a “ahhh, a Kermode fan” from the other father.

You can listen to Kermodian rants on the radio, via podcast and his video blog – and now there’s a whole book of them. (Well, in fact there are two. The first is his autobiography It’s Only A Movie…) This is possibly the first ever book I’ve pre-ordered – though this was mainly because it was released a week after I moved house and I was buying it as gifts for two of the people who helped me move, two people who happen to be the person who introduced me to Wittertainment and the person who took me to their Christmas special. There was obviously an ulterior motive to bestowing the book upon friends, and helpfully one of them finished it in record time and passed it on to me – where it’s taken me four weeks to finish it (thanks, return to academia) and another week to get around to writing this post.

The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex (hereafter referred to as TGTBATM) doesn’t require a film studies degree or a subscription to the Wittertainment podcast in order to be understood or enjoyed. I can quite honestly say that I have never smiled so much while reading a book before. In fact, it led to a rather embarrassing scenario on a tube where an eligible bachelor (no pets) on my course was sat across from me as I was reading it, and probably wondering why on earth I was choking back giggles and grinning like a maniac. It’s not just me either, it seems to have the same affect upon others – I took it with me on our staff retreat last month and the vicar requisitioned it one evening, sitting on the sofa for over an hour, utterly oblivious to everything around him and chuckling, no, shrieking with laughter at regular intervals. [The good Doctor K also got referenced in a sermon recently – the vicar reckons that should Dr K retire, he could replace him. Personally, I think he’s not quite the ranting type, which is a good thing as ranting vicars can be a bit of a nightmare.]

It’s the rants that make Kermode the excellent reviewer that he is. It’s not their length, their passion and the sheer brilliance of the language used within them, but the fact that (most of the time) they’re based upon well grounded facts. Surely he’s well-justified in ranting (continuously) about the scourge of 3D – there are the ridiculous glasses (that discriminate against those of us with our own glasses), the reduced light, and the fact that retro-fitting isn’t even ‘real’ 3D to name just a few. The book’s introduction is entitled ‘Would the last projectionist please turn off the lights…’ and is a moving account of how projectionists are being done away with across the country (by which I mean fired because cinemas don’t ‘need’ them; not that a projectionist serial killer is on the loose). There’s brilliant detail in the history; moving personal stories; plus a good dose of humour and brilliant language.

Kermode writes as he speaks. In fact, whole chunks of the book will be familiar to Wittertainment fans – I’m sure most of us can recite much of his rants on SATC 2 and Transformers 3 – but it’s not an issue and is in fact a reflection of how well he speaks. Mid-way through their reading of the book, my friend sent me an email simply entitled ‘quote’:
“Opinions are like arseholes: everyone’s got one, and everyone thinks theirs is the only one that doesn’t stink.”


A season of beautiful books

There really is little I love more than an aesthetically pleasing book. [Those that feel that I ought to get a life should close this tab now.] Over the last couple of years I’ve waxed lyrical over Virago’s modern classics hardback collection, so it’s unsurprising that much rejoicing was had when I discovered (courtesy of the Observer magazine left on a coffee table at church) that five more were being published. Behold:

Virago Modern Classics Designer Collection – Take 2
It’s killing me that these currently have £2 off at Foyles as I cannot possibly justify buying them – but they were added to my Amazon wishlist within minutes of discovering them and Christmas isn’t that far off…
While in Foyles wrestling with book buying temptation, I stumbled upon another new collection, this time from Vintage and in paperback, but still impressive – especially if you bought all 21 of their special editions. In honour of Vintage’s 21st anniversary they’ve chosen 21 ‘iconic’ titles and re-published them in striking single colour editions. When observed en masse within a table display they’re positively scrummy and would look awesome shelved together. [Yes, I realise this would break my book organisation rules, but – shock horror – I’ve now broken it with the original Virago collection.] 
See, it’s like a rainbow of excellent literature! 

I can’t tell you how much it irrationally annoys me that many of the prettiest – e.g. the pink Time Traveller’s Wife; purple Possession; and turquoise Atonement – are books I already own. Also, how simply fantastic is it that Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is orange and Woman in Black is black? 

If such discoveries weren’t enough to make my cup of bibliophile joy runneth over, today I made a truly fabulous discovery. It was my first day in my new ‘job’ (i.e. placement within training) and my supervising vicar took me out for lunch. We got to talking about what I did for fun and I mentioned reading and the fact that I’d noticed his book collection (observed during a staff meeting in his lounge that morning) was very much along the lines of my taste in literature. He asked if I’d come across Persephone Books – indeed I had, thanks to their publication of Noel Streatfeild’s Saplings which I’d bought earlier in the year. As a result, once we’d finished eating he took me over the road to their only shop…

Oh. My. Goodness. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven! It turns out that other than their ‘classics’ collection (of which Saplings is one), all their books have the same silvery grey cover, but with utterly gorgeous patterns over the inside leaves – oh, and there are bookmarks to match! The shelves are full of piles of books, each with a little bit of blurb laid over the same patterned paper. They specialise in reprinting ‘neglected classics’, mostly by women and mostly from the first half of the 20th century. Alongside fiction are diaries and cookery books – pretty much every single one was enticing. The shop’s tiny, meaning you can see the staff of the publishing house hard at work right in front of you, alongside more piles of books and the WW2 posters that adorn the walls. I had to go back after I’d said goodbye to my vicar so that I could wallow in its beauty a little more.

The luscious shelving displays

Wouldn’t such a pile of beauties help make your life just a little bit better?

I’m really not sure that this shop being 5minutes from work (and on my route home) is a good thing. How many times do you think I can go in without buying anything and not be recognised? I highly recommend paying them a visit though – their catalogue and biannual are freely available and a short story in the latter kept me suitably entertained while locked out of the church office for nearly an hour this afternoon. (My initiation accidentally involved not being told the security code for the office door and I arrived back at the church from lunch to discover that everyone else had gone out…)

One question remains, with my life transforming itself into a manic whirlwind of non-stop activity, when will I ever get the time to read all the books I’m currently lusting after?

How do you define ‘seriously’?

In amongst the birthday cards and gifts my sister brought with her to London on Saturday was non-birthday gift that I knew to expect – a hardback copy of The Chalet School Goes To It which my mother had purchased after a detailed phone call with me a few days earlier. First thing I did after extracting it from its paper bag? Opened it up at a random page and inhaled deeply – there is little better in this world than the smell of a 60 year old hardback school story…

At some point during our picnic I mentioned my latest acquisition and was asked if I had similar rules for Chalet School hardbacks as for paperbacks. (I have a variety of book collection rules but will never go into the tedium of my CS paperback collection here, suffice to say I now have a full set that I’m almost happy with.) I think my response was “Oh no! I don’t take collecting the hardbacks seriously!” – to which the (possibly sarcastic reply) was “So you’d take a book in any kind of condition, with the spine hanging off?”. When I said that I wouldn’t, my friends suggested that I was taking this more seriously than originally claimed – so let me explain:

Firstly, once I had my complete paperback set, my Chalet School collecting passion was fairly satisfied. I had all the stories as well as various other bits and pieces – pretty impressive considering there are 62 books in total. Secondly, the paperbacks were hard enough to come by – the hardbacks are even worse. I’ve acquired a few, some for free, but dedicating time and resources to finding all 58 hardbacks is not something I can justify.

This is the only complete hardback set I’ve seen in the flesh. 
It was the highlight of a New Years’ house party nearly three years ago (a friend was house-sitting). 
In fact, I recently discovered the owner may be a tutor of mine next year, which would be exceptionally exciting. 

But, when I joined Friends of the Chalet School (FOCS) [oh yes, for two years I was that much of a geek – though, to be fair, it was their book selling network that helped me complete my collection] I discovered a terrible thing. When Armada began publishing the paperbacks, they edited the original text. In some cases it was just minor – updating of language and removal of now offence terms – in other cases it saw the deletion of entire chapters, new titles or even two books instead of one. (If you’re a geek too, here’s a list of how the series fared.) Finding that my collection was missing bits of the plot incensed me, so in the back of my head, my priority for hardback purchases is those that suffered most at  the editors’ pens.

[Incidentally, a lot of classic children’s literature suffered from this and is only now being dealt with. Check the editions you grew up with and you may well discover a mention of ‘abridged’ if you look closely enough. And don’t get me started on Enid Blyton & the transformation of Aunt Fanny to Aunt Franny! They’d better not tamper with Arthur Ransome’s Titty…]

Fortunately, when I was a member of FOCS, I was able to read accounts of exactly how these editions differed and in some cases, read the missing chapters. For the first time I discovered that Princess Elisaveta reappeared at the school during WW2, and just how lucky I was to have read the unabridged Three Go To The Chalet School before acquiring the paperback version. (And yes, I’d have loved to write my own comparison, but the hardbacks I owned had already been done.)

So, jumping into bed with my newest hardback on Sunday night was an exciting prospect as I looked forward to new discoveries. I won’t bore you with the details, but the fact that Goes To It became The Chalet School At War in paperback gives an indication of the differences. I know, it’s sad, but it makes me happy…

Predictably, once I read one, I couldn’t stop. This is a particularly dangerous prospect given (a) the size of the series and (b) that I’d intended them to go into storage in 3 weeks time. Then I went online to see if I could find any of the old comparison articles. I couldn’t, but did find that new fill-in titles were available. I’m in two minds about these, on the one hand the ones I’ve read have been good and very true to EBD’s style. On the other hand, there are errors and these annoy me, plus, I’m not sure if it’s the right thing to do. But, if you’re a fan of the series, I do recommend those sold by the Girls Gone By Publishers (who now have the CS publishing rights). Then I found a real black hole – online fan fiction.

Fan fiction can be rather dodgy. I’ve heard about the mass of Potter related fanfic, much of which seems to veer on pornographic. Suffice to say that CS fans aren’t as lewd – though I did appreciate one story in which the predictable, somewhat formulaic structure of the series was fought against (and where Joey and Jack actually had sex – shock horror!) and there are a couple of predictable girls’ school insinuations. I also discovered a brilliant post end of series story about Len’s daughter which actually brought a tear to my eye, in much the way that occasionally EBD originals have.

Finally, if you are a fan and believe yourself to have fairly encyclopaedic knowledge, what’s better than a few quizzes? It’s possible I may have wasted around 30 minutes of my evening down that particular black hole!