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The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) 245 p.

The Wind in the Willows has always been the first thing that comes to mind when I try to think of a quintessentially English book. I’d never actually read it before, but it’s yet another one of those works whose reputation precedes it. You pick up bits and pieces about it from all kinds of adaptations, and it’s left an influence on a whole lot of other literature.

Set in the Thames Valley where Grahame (ironically a Scotsman) grew up in the 19th century, The Wind in the Willows follows a cast of anthropomorphised animals through the pastoral idylls and turning seasons of the iconic English countryside. It begins with Mole abandoning his house during spring cleaning, escaping into the fresh air of the countryside where he discovers the great river and befriends the Water Rat; shortly we’re introduced to the wise and gruff Badger and the irascible Toad, a wealthy and excitable young fellow who is forever pursuing new hobbies. In terms of structure it’s a weird sort of book, based on a collection of bedtime stories Grahame used to tell his son; one chapter is a plotless description of a cosy Christmas dinner, while another (very strange) one is about an encounter Rat and Mole have with the god Pan, and it’s all loosely connected by a narrative backbone concerning Toad’s conviction for stealing a motor car, his eventual escape from prison and his return to Toad Hall, where he finds it’s been occupied by stoats and weasels who must be driven out.

The Wind in the Willows is quite reminiscent of the novels of Tolkien in the way that it idealises the English countryside; although I suppose it’s not really idealisation, because back in 1908 the countryside hadn’t yet been compromised by the plague of modernity. (There are still beautiful places in England, but few views which will not be marred by some Ballardian interloper like a motorway or a Tesco superstore.) It’s a lovely, sentimental story full of streams and meadows and flowers and narrowboats and villages.

From a modern viewpoint, though, there are a few jarringly dated moments. I’m sure it’s not what Grahame intended, but Mole and Rat are totally a gay couple. More disconcertingly – because it very much was intended, or was at least an inescapable part of Grahame’s world view – the rigid British class system is everywhere. Mole is regularly scolded for “forgetting his English” when he lapses into his working class accent, and he’s ashamed of his small and shabby house in comparison with middle class Rat’s more opulent riverside digs. More obviously, Toad is a privileged gentleman of leisure: a rich Bertie Wooster figure who spends his money on all manner of ridiculous pursuits, and escapes jail to find that – shock, horror! – his mansion is now full of working class squatters. (This also reminded me of Tolkien, when the hobbits return home from their adventures to find the Shire occupied by Saruman’s authoritarian regime. I don’t necessarily buy this, but the most amusing take I’ve read about that segment is that it’s an analogy for the British officer class returning from World War II to find the Labour Party in government.) At the end of the book the four main characters drive the weasels and stoats out of Toad Hall and back into the Wild Woods where they belong, and the last page or two talks, in a roundabout sort of way, about how those wicked animals were suitably chastened and respectful of their social betters for the rest of their lives. It’s all relatively mild stuff for its era, but still quite funny.

It reminded me quite a bit of the anthropomorphic animal tales of my own childhood: Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels, which have copped a lot of flak for what appears to be a fairly rigid racial analogy in which mice, moles, badgers and otters are unfailingly good, while rats, weasels, stoats, ferrets and foxes are – almost without exception, across twenty-two novels – evil. Besides that, the fingerprints of The Wind in the Willows are all over the Redwall series: a bucolic countryside, lavishly described meals, a battle to reclaim a country manor from verminous occupiers. I always skip introductions when I read classic novels, so it was almost too good when I looked back at it after finishing and realised that this edition’s introduction was penned by none other than Jacques himself. Here’s a taste:

Oh, those weasels! Armed with clubs and daggers, some even brandishing blunderbusses, they stalk the unwary traveller. One can instantly identify a weasel: they snarl nastily, dress in stripy jerseys and greasy waistcoats, they wear flat-peaked caps too, and carry gunnysacks marked ‘Swag’. What an unsavoury lot.

Make of that what you will.

It’s one of the contradictions of life, I suppose, being a latte-sipping Guardianista keenly aware of the injustices of the world, but nonetheless enjoying the nostalgia factor of The Good Old Days when the landed gentry enjoyed fine breakfasts in their elegant mansions, and adventure could be found in the far-flung corners of the grand British Empire. I’ll gladly criticise Brian Jacques, because he was writing in the 1990s and should have known better, but Kenneth Grahame was alive at the same time as Dickens. You can’t judge people based on their time. The Wind in the Willows, while dated in some aspects, is nonetheless a beautiful, timeless classic of children’s literature.

“Couldn’t you stop on for just this year?” suggested the Water Rat, wistfully. “We’ll all do our best to make you feel at home. You’ve no idea what good times we have here, while you are far away.”

“I tried ‘stopping on’ one year,” said the third swallow. “I had grown so fond of the place that when the time came I hung back and let the others go on without me. For a few weeks it was all well enough, but afterwards, O the weary length of the nights! The shivering, sunless days! The air so clammy and chill, and not an insect in an acre of it! No, it was no good; my courage broke down, and one cold, stormy night I took wing, flying well inland on account of the strong easterly gales. It was snowing hard as I beat through the passes of the great mountains, and I had a stiff fight to win through; but never shall I forget the blissful feeling of the hot sun again on my back as I sped down to the lakes that lay so blue and placid below me, and the taste of my first fat insect! The past was like a bad dream; the future was all happy holiday as I moved southwards week by week, easily, lazily, lingering as long as I dared, but always heeding the call! No, I had had my warning; never again did I think of disobedience.”

“Ah, yes, the call of the South, of the South!” twittered the other two dreamily. “Its songs, its hues, its radiant air! O, do you remember…” and, forgetting the Rat, they slid into passionate reminiscence, while he listened fascinated, and his heart burned within him. In himself, too, he knew that it was vibrating at last, that chord hitherto dormant and unsuspected. The mere chatter of these southern-bound birds, their pale and second-hand reports, had yet power to awaken this wild new sensation and thrill him through and through with it; what would one moment of the real thing work in him – one passionate touch of the real southern sun, one waft of the authentic odour? With closed eyes he dared to dream a moment in full abandonment, and when he looked again the river seemed steely and chill, the green fields grey and lightless. Then his loyal heart seemed to cry out on his weaker self for its treachery.

“Why do you ever come back, then, at all?” he demanded of the swallows jealously. “What do you find to attract you in this poor drab little country?”

“And do you think,” said the first swallow, “that the other call is not for us too, in its due season? The call of lush meadow-grass, wet orchards, warm, insect-haunted ponds, of browsing cattle, of haymaking, and all the farm-buildings clustering round the House of the perfect Eaves?”

“Do you suppose,” asked the second one, “that you are the only living thing that craves with a hungry longing to hear the cuckoo’s note again?”

“In due time,” said the third, “we shall be homesick once more for quiet water-lilies swaying on the surface of an English stream. But today all that seems pale and thin and very far away. Just now our blood dances to other music.”

– From “The Wind In The Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton (1996) 1225 p.

Is this the longest book I’ve ever read? I went to the bother of going to my old LibraryThing account and figuring out how to sort by page count, and determined that The Isles: A History is actually slightly longer, at 1296 pages – but that’s non-fiction. The Reality Dysfunction is indeed the longest novel I’ve ever read, scraping past A Storm of Swords by just nine pages.

Peter F. Hamilton is one of Britain’s best-selling science fiction authors, and it’s easy to see why. The Reality Dysfunction is easy, popcorn pulp sci-fi. I wouldn’t exactly call it well-paced, but the prose is workable and it hums along fairly quickly for a book of its length. (Obviously it still takes quite a while to get through.) It takes place in the 27th century, when humanity has spread across the stars in a unified Confederation, peacefully split between the technology-based Adamists, who use good old mechanical spaceships, and the biotechnology-based Edenists, who use living, sentient bioships, live in organic O’Neill habitats, and are telepathically bonded with each other. The introductory phase of the novel — which takes place over a frankly greedy 400 pages — is mostly centred around the tropical planet Lalonde, where new colonists are about to unwittingly unleash something very nasty.

Hamilton’s writing style is fairly humdrum, workable sci-fi prose, not dissimilar to the last mostly forgettable sci-fi book I read, The Quiet War by Paul McAuley. He can occasionally be stilted, switching viewpoint in mid-paragraph or using a comma when a full stop would have been better, and his dialogue is awkwardly expository. The worst aspect of the book for me was the characters. There are probably about two or three hundred who are named, regardless of how small their role is, and they’ll often vanish for hundreds of pages and then reappear with Hamilton expecting you to remember what their deal is. He has a habit of referring to them by their full names (often rather bland names for the 27th century, like “Ralph Hilch” or “Jenny Harris”) which always put me in the mind of working in a large office; people adding the surname in just so you’re sure who they’re talking about, faceless acquaintances you know nothing about but feel obliged to remember. And when the characters are regularly appearing, they’re not much better. The main character, Joshua Calvert, is an atrocious Mary Sue: a 21-year-old smart, handsome, gifted starship captain who literally makes every woman he meets want to have sex with him. I know the Literary Review only focuses on proper literary works, but Hamilton rightfully deserved a Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the endlessly awkward sex scenes that litter The Reality Dysfunction.

For all those flaws, I understand the appeal of a book like this. It’s creative and it’s epic. It has a number of great cinematic moments, like the mercenary team arriving at the Tyrathca settlement or the final desperate rescue mission that occupies the last hundred pages of the book. There are a lot of the exciting cavalry-has-arrived moments you’d expect from a novel like this, simplistic but nonetheless enjoyable set-pieces which make you genuinely pumped at the concept of the good guys getting one over on the bad guys. It’s a readable book, but not a well-written book, if you see what I mean; it often gives the impression that Hamilton is tossing everything at the wall to see what sticks in an early draft. It’s full of sound and fury but doesn’t add up to much. The books I kept comparing it to were Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels, which are either a) better, or b) appear better because I read them as a younger, more easily excitable man.

The phrase I kept coming back to was “airport fiction.” Airport fiction can be any genre – thriller, fantasy, sci-fi, whatever. It just has to check a few boxes. It has to be compelling, it has to have a good premise, it has to be readable but not too weighty; not the sort of arty prose you have trouble wrapping your head around on a 5:00am international flight, when you’re too disrupted to go back to sleep but not in the mood to get stuck into Gunter Grass or whatever. It’s the McDonald’s of fiction: a cheap and easy sugar hit. Sure, you might prefer to get the same sugar boost from more creative confectionery at an artisan bakery, but those are a lot harder to find.

I was, however, disappointed that in the final few hundred pages it became clear that there would be no resolution. I knew it was the first book in a trilogy, but was hoping it might be more loosely connected than that. Exactly what’s going on with the unearthed threat is explained, but it’s barely even begun to affect the Confederation, and it’s certainly not about to come to a conclusion. The book ends with about as much finality or sense of closure as the end of any given chapter, i.e. none at all. I’m not going to blame Hamilton for that, but I’m not going to read the rest of the series either; my curiosity is piqued enough that I’d like to know what happens, but not at the cost of four or five weeks in which I could easily read another five or six novels. I’ll just look up a plot synopsis. McDonald’s is tasty enough, but unless you’re fourteen years old you don’t want to eat it every night.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938) 222 p.

Scoop is a novel which for some reason I always thought came with an exclamation mark at the end (Scoop!) but I can now find no evidence to support this recollection. I also thought it was Waugh’s most famous novel, though I’ve now found out that he did in fact write Brideshead Revisited, a novel which I will definitely, one day, get around to finding out what it is about and why it is well-known and possibly even read it.

Scoop is one of those novels which is, somehow, simultaneously timeless but also an umistakeable product of its time. John Courtney Boot, a relatively successful writer, uses one of his wealthy patrons to insist that a media magnate signs him onto his newspaper (The Daily Beast, yes) as a foreign correspondent for the brewing civil war in the obscure African nation of Ishmaelia. The paper’s underlings are simply told to dispatch “Boot,” and check their existing staff list for the candidate, finding on the payroll a minor contributor named William Boot who writes a column called Lush Places. (I imagine these sorts of wistfully bucolic columns aimed at Londoners were quite popular at the time, but it immediately made me think of one of the only survivors, the Guardian’s long-running Country Diary.) Scoop is a fish-out-of-water comedy, as the naive and hapless William Boot is plucked from a life of genteel poverty in the West Country and dispatched alongside the cynical, ruthless journalists of the international press to a farcical civil war in a tinpot dictatorship.

Scoop is a dated product of the 1930s in the sense that it deals with a fairly quaint and predictably racist colonial setting and proxy war, but also in the sense that it was written as a satire of Fleet Street based on Waugh’s own experience covering the Italian invasion of Ethiopia for the Daily Mail (no less execrable in the 1930s than it is now, presumably), with characters very much based on real people. According to Wikipedia, Lord Copper is based on Lord Northcliffe and Lord Beaverbrook, William Boot is based on Bill Deedes, Wenlock Jakes is based on John Gunther of the Chicago Daily News and Mrs Stitch is based on Lady Diana Cooper. I haven’t the foggiest notion of who any of these people are, and I don’t mind admitting that, because I doubt the average well-educated Englishman would know either. Scoop is almost eighty years old; the figures it satirises may have been famous in their day, but they’ve long since become dust and ashes.

Fortunately Waugh’s general lampoonery of the habits of the press is in many ways still relevant today, but even if it weren’t, so what? We can still laugh at the habits and foibles of wholly fictional characters, and Waugh’s prose style is in itself wonderfully comic:

He gave the steward one of Nannie Bloggs’ sovereigns in mistake for a shilling. It was contemptuously refused and everyone in the carriage stared at him. A man in a bowler hat said, “May I look? Don’t often see one of them nowadays. Tell you what I’ll do, I’ll toss you for it. Call.”

William said, “Heads.”

“Tails it is,” said the man in the bowler hat, putting it in his waistcoat pocket. He then went on reading his paper and everyone stared harder at William. His spirits began to sink; the mood of defiance passed. It was always the way; the moment he left the confines of Boot Magna he found himself in a foreign and hostile world.

While Scoop doubtless would have been a more relevant novel in its heyday, it still has plenty of amusing observations about the nature of news – the indifference of its consumers, the cosy relationship between the press and the powerful, and its own distorting influence on the truth. It’s probably not going to be Waugh’s most enduring book, but it’s still worth a read in the 21st century.

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April 2015