“I Write Because I Simply Must!”

A great interview with the delightful Cynthia Ozick, author of Critics, Monsters, Fanatics and Other Literary Essays, at npr books

Ms. Ozick laments the loss of a literary culture, when the publication of a “serious literary novel was an exuberant community event.” The last time a book caused a such a reaction was Harry Potter. I attended an exuberant launch for Harry Potter and the Half B,lood Prince and it was great fun, with everyone dressed up as witches and wizards. I have also seen libraries in remote areas of Queensland that treat the arrival of a favourite author’s new book with great enthusiasm as everyone rushes to register to be among the first to read it.

But it is true that it’s all rather muted today. Bloomsbury knew they were onto a good thing with Harry Potter, and that Rowling’s fans were ready and willing to have their exuberance whipped up, but authors mostly have to make the party themselves, with kickstarters, blog tours and whatnot.

I miss literary culture too, I miss writers who could get you heart fluttering with the release of a new book like A.J. Cronin, J.B. Priestley, Elizabeth Goudge, Nevil Shute and so many others, long gone now, who made being a book lover such an adventure. What would they thrill and enchant us with next?

Well, I have Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to look forward to, as well as Ms. Ozick’s latest.

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again – Robert Silverberg

time hoppers

I knew Silverberg prior to this on the stength of one book – Romany Star – which I read simply because it was the only sf book I ever came across that was about gypsies. I enjoyed it immensely, especially the rollicking main character Yakoub.
I always intended to read Letters From Atlantis, Silverberg’s first venture into the Romany Star universe, but never got around to it until recently, when I found  in the public library. Sadly, I found Letters From Atlantisa bit wet, if you’ll pardon the pun. The Atlanteans seemed too settled, fatalistic and reliant on their gods to be the descendants of Romanies – Yakoub was more what I would have expected. Prince Ram had none of Yakoub’s opportunism and verve. The Rom may look downtrodden and dumbly accepting of a cruel fate to some, but this is far from the truth – these are a strong people with a rich culture, and a whole hearted approach to life. Besides, I don’t really like the letter format. It seemed quite stupid of the protagonist to be writing letters to his girlfriend in the ice age.
The other stories were Project Pendulum and The Time Hoppers, both far more satisfying. (I should mention that such is the power of Silverberg, that I could not put this book down, even though it started with the story I liked least).
Project Pendulum</em> is a tour de force, swinging back and forth between past eras and incredible visions of the future. Of the three, it is my favourite, since it showcases everything I love about Silverberg, his evocative prose, his ability to create credible characters with just a few strokes of the pen, his powerful story telling.
The Time Hoppers was interesting. It covered so many of the issues that we worried about in the 60s, such as the population explosion, ecology and could time travellers affect the future by stuffing up in the past (to put it in modern terms, if I travel back into the past and kill a butterfly, will I cease to exist in the future?”) that it was like time warping back into one of those earnest discussions we used to have between recitations of beat poetry.
But what was chiefly interesting was that Silverberg, like so many sf writers of the 60s, completely missed the one major change that would place over the following decades – the status of women. Even though it is 500 hundred years into the future, the women of Silverberg’s world still define their lives by marriage. The protagonist is Queller, a `class seven’ – which means in that overcrowded world, that he can have a room to himself. His sister Helaine is married to a god-awful specimen with whom she shares one room and the regulation two children. Helaine is married – full stop. She has no career, she stays home and programs the cooking. Her husband is unemployed, but there is no suggestion that Helaine look for a job instead. Her youngest child, a boy, jokes to his older sister that he can realise his ambitions because he `has something that she hasn’t got.” A penis, of course.
Did no one see the women’s revolution coming? Or did Silverberg dismiss the rumbling in the female ranks, deciding that if space and jobs were at a premium, women would be forced to mind the kids anyway? It was not only surprising to me that one of the most visionary writers in sf should think that women would still be wearing aprons 500 years into the future, it also startled me how badly it stood out. Like a sore thumb in fact. Now we expect to see women fighting the aliens and taking charge of space ships and colonies, and to read a book still set in the 50s mindset is completely jarring.
Even to read sf actually written by a woman back in the 60s was something of a novelty. Women were deemed too soft and emotional to be able to write hard sf, and of course, what did they know about science anyway?
Even now, the women’s role in sf has been to look at the human impact of the future, but it’s something the men have picked up on as well, and both sexes abound in sf now – you can no more expect the woman to be manning the kitchen than you can expect a man to be manning the controls of the space ship, or blasting the bejaysus out of the aliens.
Ah, the old time warp – so nostalgic, and so intructive. A writer must remember not to overlook the most blatantly obvious changes that time may bring.

Isaasc Azimov’s comment on the book cover is quite ironic in view of Siverberg’s failure see the sexual revolution up ahead – buyt then Azimov wore the same blinkers.

 

Make Art, Not War

Federal Election time in Australia. Meh. We don’t even have a reality TV moron to spice things up – we just have politicians. The real problem is that the two major parties are starting to look worryingly like each other as well. I’m sick of the pathetic knee-jerk slogans – stop the boats, back to basics : the latter always used in educational matters, as if any of these idiots even know what the basics are. Not since Whitlam have the arts even been regarded as fundamental in education. As soon as the conseravtives took over, waving slates and chalk and chanting “back to basics!” the arts have been shoved in a corner, becoming more and more the refugees of Australian culture, thrown  scraps and set adrift in leaky boats. Yet those in the arts retain their grip on our senses, with music, books, art, films and other brave sttempts to remind who we truly are. Imagine what they could do in a society that realises how lucky it is to have them?

But this election year, there is a small glimmer of hope. It’s cslled The Arts Party and it wants your vote to triple funding for the arts and make Big Corp pay up to chnnel more money into our cultural renaissence. It even has a poet in residence composing haiku.

Want one million votes

For the balance of power

Wear an Arts T-Shirt

OK, it sounds more like an ad than poetry but all artists have a sense of  humour that can’t be kept down. And that’s what we need. More art, more humour, more music, more books, more films – more encouragment and a better environment for Australians who want to make art, not war.

You’ll find the Arts Party here I hope they get their million votes, and more, because that is one way to tell these politicians that It’s Time.

 

The Man Who Would Be Jack the Ripper

The "From Hell" Letter postmarked 15...
The “From Hell” Letter postmarked 15 October 1888 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no shortage of books purporting to have been ‘discovered’ in a secret hiding place, rather than written by a contemporary author. It’s a popular conceit in the literary world, and sometimes it succeeds for a while. But The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper has a twist. The manuscript, it is claimed, was found among the possessions of a real person, the late S.G. Hulme-Beaman, who created Toytown and Larry the Lamb.

 According to the preface, Hulme-Beaman’s niece, Mrs. Jean Caldwell, called Alan Hicken, of the Montacute TV, Radio and Toy Museum in Somerset, and asked him if he would like a collection of memorabilia belonging to her uncle. As Larry the Lamb was a popular radio character for children, Hicken enthusiastically accepted. Among the items, he found an unpublished manuscript, The Autobiography of Jack the Ripper.

 The author of the ms. claimed to be one James Carnac, the son of a doctor who was briefly a medical student in his turn, and who, in the book, claimed to be the man who killed and dismembered several women in London’s Whitehall district in the 1880s. Part One of the book is about Carnac’s early life, while Part Two covers the period of the murders. Part Three appears to be Carnac’s last years before his death.

 After reading the manuscript and becoming convinced it was genuine, Hicken passed it on to crime historian and ‘ripperologist’ Paul Begg. His lengthy analysis also appears in the book, as well as a prologue by him, in which he states that, at the very least, this manuscript can’t be viewed as legal evidence, as it is not signed by witnesses.

I’m not convinced it is anything but a piece of fiction. It was likely written by Hulme-Beaman himself, who like J.K. Rowling, probably just wanted to do something different after writing for children. So the only question is – is it any good? And the answer to that is no. If you are looking for shock and horror, there are any number of books that will give you blood curdling descriptions of the crimes. This one won’t. It is claimed the manuscript was ‘edited’ by the executor of Hulme-Beaman’s will, which is very handy if you don’t want to into detail that might be proved wrong. As well, it is badly written, and here the author falls back on that old excuse that goes something like “I’m a serial killer, not a writer.” Ho hum.

Then there is the fact that James Carnac never existed at the time and place he mentions in the manuscript, nor is there any record of his parents, his landladies or anyone else connected to him (except the victims). Possibly he changed all the names – but why would he, if this is a confession only meant to be read after his death?

 So, on this occasion, the ‘discovery’ might actually be real, but what was discovered is still clearly a work of fiction. If you want to make the world think someone long dead wrote your manuscript, you are going to have to a hell of a lot more convincing than this.

9780552165396

The book is available at Book Depository. My thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

A Moment of Clarity

Writers experience many Aha! moments. Aha! That’s how this story ends. Aha! She’s in love with him, that’s why she hates him. Aha! A paying market!!!! (Lots of exclamation marks for that one, it’s so rare.)

But my most recent Aha! moment had nothing to do with the story I was working on last night. It started that way – Aha! I know what’s wrong with this story. So in  spite of the fact I had my granddaughter Lyta chattering in my ear, relating for me the entire script of her favourite My Little Pony movie, I got stuck into it on my laptop, and gave the story what it lacked – emotion.

Lyta paused in her narration, looked at the words appearing on the screen, and said, “are you an author?”

My fingers hovered in the air. All my working life I had described myself as a writer, a simple humble wordsmith chipping away. I had even worked as a journalist and was happy to claim that title, but even then it was just a job. Mostly my writing had been regarded as a little hobby of mine.  J.K. Rowling was an author. Miss Read was an author. Fame and the ability to live off your writing (in Rowling’s case, with bells on) seemed to be a necessary component.

I looked at the dreamy eyed girl who was so much like me a very long time ago, making up stories, drawing and colouring, happily lost in her own world. One day, I thought, it’s going to mean a lot to her that she knew a real author, and that it was her grandma.

“Yes, I am,” I said. She nodded happily and went back to her narration.

I’ve mentioned before that I am in the third year of a five year plan, without even knowing exactly what it is I want to have achieved at the end of it. Maybe nothing at all – maybe just a better understanding of who I am and what I want to do with the third age of my life. Naturally after decades of writing, being a sometime journalist, and frequently getting disheartened and wondering if there just might be something else I can do, the idea of giving it all up has frequently surfaced. What have I ever really gained from writing? What have I ever given the world as a writer? Just a bunch more words, a lot more wasted trees and occasionally a memorable phrase or two that has been lost and forgotten in the sheer avalanche of words that pours out every year.

But – I’m an author.  My son’s an author, my daughter Lucia is a poet and a singer.  Lyta said, when I asked her, that she wants to be an author some day. It’s a family calling, it’s genetic, it’s in the DNA. and who knows where it will pop up and what it will reveal.

 

A Year in Spain

So I was looking for blog posts with this title and WordPress couldn’t find one, but suggested I write my own. As good a prompt as I have ever seen, because I have been thinking about my year in Spain lately.

What brought it to mind was watching Madagascar 3 with the kids. Hollywood rarely ‘gets’ the circus. Movies about the circus come up with all sorts of head scratching inaccuracies, that I get to crow about to my grandchildren because I grew up in the circus, but this time the laugh was on me. They got it all right, it was just packed with nostalgia for me, especially where they put up the circus tent in the Colosseum. During my year in Spain, we were at Barcelona Monumental Bullring, which is so enormous the six pole circus tent fitted right in.

bullring circus barcelona

In those days my father took the photos.He rightfully believed no one would believe a huge circus tent could be fitted into a Spanish bullring. Some bullrings were small enough for just the circus ring, but in something as big as this, there was no point.

overlooking avila

Dad took this picture as we were heading for Avila – it lay below, overshadowed by mountains, on a rocky, barren tabletop near the Adaja river, the walled city in this mountainous and barren wilderness such an amazing sight. That’s our mobile home, a converted Leyland bus, which hated every moment of its year in Spain, heating up and boiling over constantly. Hence the chance to take a snap or two.

americasno scrapboom 1962

This is a scrapbook page from 1961 – the year I was in Spain. I was only 16, fascinated by everything, and the polyglot of nations in which I found myself – German, Italian, French, Tunisian, Swiss, and so many more – it was wonderful! This was circus, this was the travelling life – we came from everywhere, yet we were all one,we were all circus. Madagascar 3 got that right too.

I realised, that in the world I belonged, there were no borders, no ghettos, and no room or place for racism, bigotry or prejudice. You could never judge anyone on their abilities or worth as a human being that way. One of the most talented circus artists I met in Spain had suffered polio in his youth, and still walked with a limp on a crippled leg. He was an inspired clown, a marvellous acrobat and a man who never, not in a million years, would have described himself as someone with a disability. What disability? He could do anything. He was circus.

emy goty canamon

That’s him on the far left – Canamon.

Yeah I know – I should write about my year in Spain. I really should.