Which Dr Who?


Last night I was one of the millions who turned on for the fiftieth anniversary episode of Dr Who, and tuned out the world.  For seventy-five minutes I was lost in story.  Yes, I’m a fan, have been as long as I can remember.

From, 'The Guardian' 18/11/2013

From, ‘The Guardian’ 18/11/2013

What’s not to love about the idea of time travel, in a box that is bigger on the inside than the outside can contain?  Even without a quirky character in control it’s the stuff of dreams.  Throw in a main character who shape shifts, just after we’ve settled into the idea that this is how he is, and I’m hooked.

I do miss the old Doctors, all of them, and most of their companions too.  I like to think they had more adventures than we saw on the tv, or heard on the radio, but I’m glad that there’s a turn-over in personalities.  This seems like a variation on the oral tradition of story, where tellers remould their material to suit each audience, reflecting the concerns and circumstances of the day in their approach and content.  In this way, stories stayed fresh.

Cinderella, for instance has been losing and finding her shoe for more than two thousand years.  Versions of her story have been found across the globe in some of the earliest writings of various civilizations.  But here’s the rub: for most of us, despite the various writers who’ve reworked the story during the past hundred and fifty years or so, Cinderella remains held in the 1697 limbo that Charles Perrault created when he set her inside the pages of his Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals.

Cendrillon, by Gustave Dore, 1862

Cendrillon, by Gustave Dore, 1862

In 1893, Marian Raolfe Cox proposed that there were three hundred and forty-five variants on the Cinderella story.  That’s a lot of Cinders, and she hasn’t always gone by the same name, of course.  But she’s still the pretty, put-upon step-daughter and sister who wins a handsome husband when her missing footwear turns up.

Just as The Doctor is sometimes a joker, sometimes an action-man, sometimes grumpy, according to incarnations, and yet remains always The Doctor.  Some purists are bemoaning the more recent ‘up-grades’ of his personality.  They liked the old aloof doctor, who rarely even held hands with anyone, much less kissed or was kissed by a companion.   I’m glad he’s moved on.

And that goes for the side-kicks too.  I can watch the old episodes, with dippy, even silly, screeching companions prone to fainting or cowering in a corner, because they belong to their age.  That’s not us today, I tell myself.

Of course, in reality, if I was faced with weeping angels, cyber-men or any other more feasible invasion situation, I probably would scream then go hide in a cupboard and wait to be saved.  But this is fiction.  I want main characters who are active, who face up to the action and react positively, even if they are not the title protagonist.  I want them to get out there and work things out, together.

Finding Stories

You’ve got a story to tell.  I know it.  It’s probably snuggled down behind other activities most of the time, so you forget, but it creeps out more often than you realise. That’s because you tend to call it by other names. We all do.

1905 Pablo Picasso - Les Noces de Pierrette

1905 Pablo Picasso – Les Noces de Pierrette

‘You’ll never guess what happened today,’ you say.

Or, ‘Have you heard about…’

We tell tales, reminisce, gossip, exchange news, report facts…(this could turn into a thesaurus entry if I’m not careful) call it what you will, the principle is the same.  We assemble incidents into a narrative of beginning, middle and end.

‘Ah,’ you say.  ‘Real-life stories, they’re not the same as imaginative ones, are they?’

Poor story, you might have some pity for it.  It’s hard to hold onto your identity when you don’t have a single, simple label to go by.

‘Wait,’ you say, ‘I’m known by more than just christian or surname and I’m clear about who I am.’

Yes, I know, you’re Susan.  Except only one person calls you that, or when anyone does you know you’re in trouble.  Generally, your name gets shortened to Sue, Susie or Suse – alternatively if you’ve a short name it probably gets an ‘ie’ added on.  These of course are signals of friendship, even affection.  Jakie for Jake, that’s nice.

You might have a nickname too, polite or otherwise, depending on whether it comes from affection or respect.  There the scope is endless, does it describe your appearance, ‘Red’, ‘Mouse’, ‘Lofty’ – either literally or ironically?  Perhaps it’s based on your personality, or achievement.  Are you a ‘Prof’ or ‘Swifty’?

Then again, there are people who go by their surnames either in full, Parker, Evans, Farrell or shortened.  Think ‘Lucky’ for Luckington, ‘Titch’ for Titchmarsh or how about ‘Jonesey’ for Jones.

It seems to me that we fit our names, and our names fit us.  It’s a chicken and egg syndrome thing, isn’t it?  Would you be the same person if you took on another name?

Rosamund Irene Baker, who’s had forty two years of being known as Rosie, has been a secretary for all of her working life.  When her husband gets a new job on the other side of the country, Rosie follows suit.  The couple move away from everyone they’ve known.

To her new neighbours she says, ‘I’m Rose.’

‘Call me Cookie,’ she says to her new colleagues.

At her daughters wedding, we’re quite a mix.  Family and friends from all areas of her life mingle.  Imagine this vast celebratory gathering of family and friends, old and new.

Rosamund Irene Baker, nee Barrington, moves amongst us in her best hostess mode, making introductions, sharing smiles and memories.  She shifts between her personalities according to the story she shares with her companion.  Some of these are single categories, others bridge several: childhood, teenage, marriage, parenthood, work, social, these are the simple divisions.

I’m not sure if Rosie exists anymore and I don’t think she is either. We old friends try to assimilate this familiar face with her new name, Rosie to Rose to Cookie.  We pick up fragments of the alternative story, the anecdotes that seem out of kilter with the dimension of Rosamund we knew.

‘Imagine Rosie doing that,’ we might say to our partners on the journey home.  ‘I’d never have thought it.’

Just when we think we know someone they reveal something surprising.  That’s story, I think.

‘This week,’ I say to the writing group, ‘your subject is a wedding party.’  We do some brainstorming, build up a few ideas to get our memories and imaginations flowing.  We speculate with, ‘what if’s.’  Somewhere along that route a switch is tripped and stories begin to form.  They’re no more than sparks of inspiration, but we nurture them, feeding in ideas.

At the next meeting I enjoy eleven new stories.  Each one unique, their subjects are murder, bigamy, jealousy, jilting, retribution, romance, gluttony and avarice.  Are they true?  Yes, every one, in its own way.

Which Shelf?

It was only after I’d checked the general novels and then the classics shelves that I thought of looking in the children’s books section.  Sure enough, there was T.H. White’s, ‘The Once and Future King’.  Perhaps this doesn’t surprise you, especially given the illustrations the publisher has used for the new cover.  51jAaoccw9L._SL190_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU02_AA190_Besides, ‘child’ covers a lot of time, anything up to…to…actually, now I come to think about it, I’ve no idea about this.  Looking back at my own history, I think my reading extended into the adult section somewhere around the time I started secondary school.  I wouldn’t like to pin that down specifically, mind, because for a long while I alternated, continuing with the children’s section for at least as long as I was in school.

I wasn’t just returning to the books I’d loved for years, the Famous Fives, school girl mysteries and the teenage ghost and horror collections etcetera.  I read contemporary writing for children too.  Sometimes these were recommendations, often they were random choices.  Which means, I suppose, that the covers attracted me.

Books, especially those chosen or read in public, are status symbols.  If you think that might only be true for children, and you’ve left that behind, let me ask what you would be willing to be seen reading on the bus or train?  Isn’t there a genre, or certain publishing house that you would not dream of being associated with?  What we carry brands us as directly as the way we dress.

Rumour has it that the popularity of kindle is partly based on it’s ability to disguise the genre being consumed.  There are some who claim that the rise in popularity of erotic fiction has only occurred because it can be read covertly.  I don’t know how true that is.

I do know that a lot of people are discussing the Fifty Shades sequence of novels, in public, but perhaps that’s just because of the publicity that surrounds it.  I hear a lot of, ‘Have you read it?’ ‘What do you think about the writing?’  (This can’t be the only book where a justification usually follows the admission, ‘Yes, I have..’ can it?)  I don’t hear many of those people admitting to reading other similar titles.

I also know that we only had one copy of ‘Fifty Shades’ donated to the bookstall at the local fete this year.  The first year any have turned up.

But I want to get back to T.H. White.  I think I was in my late teens when I first read The Once and Future King.  I still have that copy, though it’s now held together with an elastic band. Fontana imprintThis, I think is a book that I could have been seen carrying in public at any age.

I would also like to add that it’s a cover that more accurately conveys the content of the book.  I know it’s taken me a long time to get here, but this is my real question about this book, ‘Did the person who decided on the illustration actually read the book, the whole book?’

Here’s the opening:

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays it was Court Hand and Summulae Logicales, while the rest of the week it was the Organon, Repetition and Astrology.  The governess was always getting muddled with her astrolabe, and when she got specially muddled she would take it out of the Wart by rapping his knuckles.  She did not rap Kay’s knuckles, because when Kay grew older he would be Sir Kay, the master of the estate.  The Wart was called the Wart because it more or less rhymed with Art, which was short for his real name.

Clearly, at this point, the main protagonist is a child.  I agree that if you ignore the academic references (can you?) it might be possible to assume the intended readers are children.  After all, there are plenty of younger reads that are meant to be enjoyed on another level by the adult who reads aloud.  I’m not convinced this is that kind of book.

The thing is, ‘The Once and Future King’ is composed of four, arguably five books, depending on which version you read. While the cover at the top of this page could apply to book 1, The Sword in The Stone, by book 2, The Queen of Air and Darkness, Arthur is a man.  There are still children at the centre of the story, there is still magic imbedded in the plot, but the story moves into adult territory.  While not graphic, there are seductions, rape, betrayals and battles.  This is, after all, based on the Arthur myths.

Now I’m not saying the book is unsuitable for children.  I haven’t attempted to define what age group childhood covers, let alone what material they should or should not read.

I’m thinking here about teenage, because that, at least, can be accurately summed up as thirteen to nineteen.  What concerns me with the issue in my top illustration, is that it limits this book.  I’m not sure how many older teenagers would be comfortable to be seen reading this copy, let alone adults.  Which is a shame, because T.H. White did not write these books for children, any more than Charlotte Bronte did with Jane Eyre, or Charles Dickens with Great Expectations or Nicholas Nickleby.

Here is the original cover for the collected novels, as it was published in 1958.  I ask you, which cover do you prefer?

Once_future_king_coverIncidentally, in the same shop, The Dark Materials trilogy and all of the Harry Potter novels were shelved amongst the ‘adult’ A – Z of authors.

Telling Stories.

‘Did you recite something?’ Ruth said, when I told her I’d been to Caerleon.

I hadn’t.  When she said that, I wished I had.

As I was standing on that grassy lip at the amphitheater, it had occurred to me that Edmund would have known a story to fit the occasion.  During his field-trips to Cornwall the highlight for me was always the visit to Tintagel Castle.  Not just because the place is spectacular and, well, awesome.

And let’s just step aside here to clarify that I don’t mean awesome in what the Oxford English Dictionary calls the ‘weakened’ or ‘trivial’ sense, as ‘an enthusiastic term of commendation’.  Tintagel has an atmosphere.

The high cliffs, the ancient remnants of walls and pathways and the sheltered coves and caves below it inspire the kind of awe that means I’m conscious of having to breath.  There, I look at the stonework, laid about seven hundred and fifty years ago, and think that the men and women who made and lived in the castle might walk around a corner at any moment.

Getting back to the field trip.  After we’d done our exploring we gathered in the walled garden for a picnic.  We were twenty-five students and a handful of staff, basking in early spring sunshine, eating sandwiches.  The turf was emerald green, and the sea beyond us was so clear that even from that height we could see the ridges of boulders and banks of weed in its blue depths.

It was term time.  There weren’t many other tourists straggling past, but when Edmund began to recount the story of how King Uther Pendragon seduced Queen Igraine from her husband with the help of Merlin’s sorcery, our gathering grew.  People who had paused to stare at our hushed group lingered to listen.  They drew closer, then settled on the edges of the walls.

How long did the story last?  I couldn’t say.  There is no time when the story works.  Events unfold gently, paced by the teller to suit their audience.  We listened with bated breath, even though most of us knew what would happen.

Der Erzahler by Georg Bergmann  1819 – 1870

Der Erzahler by Georg Bergmann
1819 – 1870

To listen to a bard is a special experience.  This was not reciting lines learned, it was fresh words, being put together as the moment dictated.  At every telling there are subtle differences.  The emphasis shifts.

I was invited to join three Cornwall trips, and heard that tale twice more, each time seemed fresh.  The bones of it were fixed, but the telling shifted.  As Edmund’s family grew, as the world changed and we within it, and according to the make-up of each year’s student mix he re-worked his material.

Story tellers take us back to the origins of story.  It’s not just that they recount traditional tales, the skills they employ are part of their inheritance, cherished and adapted to suit each individual’s style.  Their spoken voice is as individual as the written voice.

The repetitions they use, the way their stories begin and finish, the way they use their vocabulary, all go to make a unique ‘tellers-voice’.  This is a skill not to be compared to reading aloud.  As enjoyable as that is, it’s fixed, the words have been set before the audience was met.

Edmund was a gifted story-teller.  He loved the form, he loved language, and he loved his material, that was the heart of his re-tellings.  He didn’t need the atmosphere of Celtic surroundings, or bonfires on a beach, his stories were as effective in the stark white classrooms of the Dean Walters Building or the room at the back of the Pilgrim’s Bar.

Telling is about knowing how the story works, not just forwards, but backwards and perhaps even inside-out.  The world of the imagination is, and should be, stronger and clearer than the real world.  We need to know our stories intricately and intimately, only then can we know which bits we can leave out and why that makes our story work.

Even if we can’t stand up in public to tell our story, in the privacy of our notebooks we can and should practice finding our voices. Because, with the long winter evenings ahead of us, perhaps there should be a night when we really stretch ourselves, and try a more traditional style of entertainment.