Monday, 31 December 2012

An Automotive Tale

Now I want you to look at this picture. Can you see the battery? No, neither could I. This is the engine compartment of an Audi A4 diesel. It is important to our story. That story is of what the Roberts family spent the latter part of Christmas Eve doing. In hearing it you will find the answer to the burning question - how many Robertses does it take to jump start a car?

Dramatis Personae:
D1 - daughter number 1
D2 - daughter number 2
PF - pater familias aka the Overgraduate
Mrs R - the true leader
Fifi - D2's car, a Ford Fiesta
Peugie - D1's car, a Peugeot
the Audi - Mrs R's car

Our tale is this: D1 goes out for a drink with some friends - not a wild session just a civilised tipple with mates. Destination, Mere Green at a specified pub. D2 who is staying in for a change (social animal) will pick her up later. PF listens vaguely to these arrangements and gets the gist. At the appointed hour D1 telephones D2 to pick her up. She is no longer at the original public house but at another more congenial and around the corner. D2 sets off in Fifi. Simples? No. D2 arrives at the pub and meets D1. She stops Fifi for this purpose. She then quite naturally tries to restart Fifi. She fails. In the mistaken (but charmingly trusting) belief that PF knows about cars she phones him to report the dilemma. PF assumes it is a repeat of an earlier problemn with the key, grabs the spare key and tears out to the original pub to effect a rescue. He goes in the Audi. In his disorganised and inattentive hurry he does not take his phone, nor does he acknowledge the change of drinking venue. At the original pub he finds neither Fifi nor his daughters. He drives home very fast and is informed of the correct destination. He sets off again, now armed with his phone. He meets D1 and D2. Fifi does not start with the new key. A call to the AA looms but first PF will try the jump leads - which are in his precious Jag back at the family seat. He and D's 1 and 2 return home in the Audi. Jump leads collected, PF and D2 return to the locus in quo. By this time some innocent fool has parked next to Fifi so that it is not accessible from the Audi. PF eventually pushes it out into an open space while D2 steers. Audi is then moved alongside. PF opens the bonnet of Audi - can he find the battery - can he bollocks. Consults handbook. Can't read it. Needs reading glasses. D2 can read it but cannot locate the info. So D2 phones Mrs R and requests her presence with PF's glasses. Mrs R and D1 now attend in Peugie. All members of the family and three of its four cars now invoved in the enterprise. It transpires that the battery is hidden away but that there are jump start points if you know where to look. These are (with some difficulty) located and, very much to PF's surprise, Fifi sparks to life. PF modestly assumes heroic mantle having demonstrated his ascendancy over machines. The tribe now returns to the family seat in convoy. All agree it's good to do things as a family. Happy bloody Christmas. 

12 Films At Christmas - 5 & 6

It is easy in this age of wide screen television, high-definition and early dvd release, to forget the former cultural importance of the full-length Disney cartoon. They took years of patient hand production and they were accessible only by cinematic release. Most certainly Disney did not until recently expose them to the butchery of poorly formatted televisual display. No, we queued round the block to see them at the local flea pit, in my case the long-ago demolished Palace in Erdington. We attended with gangs of school friends, converging free from parental restraint on the High Street from our various corners of the borough. There was always a supporting film for us to tolerate and to serve to ratchet up the anticipation of the feature. During the support we would boo any romantic moments. The Palace Erdington was not a place for romantics. So it was with relish that I sat to watch 101 Dalmatians with my family on the splendour of our own big screen and with a whole leather sofa to myself. On certain days this is my favourite Disney cartoon, on others not. Damned fine entertainment either way.

We watched 101 Dalmatians by choice but Lady and the Tramp on the following day was a happy accident of the television schedules - shown uncut and uninterrupted by advertisements on a suitable screen. Another lovely film. I hope we might see their ilk again but the commoditisation of the cartoon art makes this unlikely - for example I note that there was a direct-to-video sequel to Lady and the Tramp and that there is a clearly inferior Tinkerbell product doing the Christmas rounds and culling a few easy holiday dollars. A shame. If you want to hear a more expertly voiced polemic on the demise of the true cinema I recommend the estimable Doctor Mark Kermode's The Good, The Bad and The Multiplex, available from all good bookshops. There is of course plenty that can also be written about the death of the bookshop. Another time.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

12 Films At Christmas - 3 & 4

An adaptation of one of my less favourite Shakespeares starring a pubescent Hollywood pretty boy ought not to float the good boat Overgraduate, but you would be wrong to assume this in the case of Baz Luhrmann's William Shakesperae's Romeo + Juliet. This is a seven out of ten jobby and definitely worth your time if you spot it on the schedules. Fast paced, noisy and not over-reverent is a style that suits the Bard.

And next comes another classic doomed romance, the oh so British and lovely Brief Encounter which I enjoyed re-watching on a newspaper free-gift dvd housed in the neat pile of such largesse in Anglesey. The whole thing simply reeks of thorough-going professionalism - not a wasted word or frame. It is interesting to compare its self-denying noble ending to the more modern and liberal treatment granted to the same material when rehashed in 1984 in Falling in Love - not of itself a bad film but not as good as the original.

Brief Encounter is at the very least a nine out of ten and belongs on those lists of films you must see before you die. Next time it shows up on the tele schedules I suggest you arm yourself with a bottle of red in a darkened room and treat yourself to the pleasure of 86 minutes of cinematic master craft.  

Friday, 28 December 2012

12 Films At Christmas - 1 & 2

Not content with telling you what to read I will now pass judgement on the first dozen films I watch over the festive period. The arbitrary process by which I watch will presumably uncover some turkeys as well as gems and I will do you the favour of saving you the bother of watching the duds. 

Into which category (duds) the first film belongs. In fact rather more than that, it is a piece of egregious old bollocks of which the participants should be ashamed. I myself feel a little dirty for having watched it. This film is Anonymous - a misbegotten propounding of the old theory of Shakespeare not having written the plays attributed to him. In this version of events the Earl of Oxford gets the credit. Not content with slagging off the boy Shakespeare the film also finds time to belittle those two other pillars of Renaissance drama, Marlowe and Jonson. There is no hint of tongue in cheek about this dire little picture. It is indefensible and worthless - please on no account watch it - to do so only encourages them.

On to happier matters, our second film is Sideways. This potentially slight tale of two Californian friends making a last trip prior to the marriage of one of them manages to be funny, sad, wistful and engaging. Thomas Haden Church as Jack gives us a character of the type all men know and, despite ourselves, love. In a bizarre way he stands in direct line from Terry Collier in The Likely Lads. I give this one eight out of ten and thoroughly recommend it. It is almost as good as Anonymous is bad and that is saying something. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

Advent 24

East of Eden - John Steinbeck
"Thou mayest rule over sin", Lee. That's it. I do not believe all men are destroyed. I can name you a dozen who were not, and they are the ones the world lives by. It is true of the spirit as it is true of battles - only the winners are remembered. Surely, most men are destroyed, but there are others who like pillars of fire guide frightemed men through the darkness. "Thou mayest, Thou mayest!" What glory!
This is the single most important passage in my literary experience. I remember vividly the riverbank I sat by as I first read it. I don't as a rule do a lot of riverside reading so this may in part explain its memorability, but I'm pretty sure it would have made its mark wherever I encountered it.

And so I wish a truly happy Christmas to all of you and remember you heard it here first - thou mayest rule over sin.

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Advent 23

The Sabre Squadron - Simon Raven

Simon Raven died on 12 May 2001. On the day that his obituary appeared in The Times my father called my office and left a message with my bemused secretary, 'Fly flags at half mast - Simon Raven dead.' Raven was scurrilous, lazy, louche and above all else, brilliant. His ten novel sequence Alms for Oblivion is masterly and constantly readable. I select The Sabre Squadron as my marginal favourite. As with all its companions, it can be read in or out of chronology. The standard line is that Raven squandered his immense gifts, but you have to say when you read this that they must then have been some bloody gifts.
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes

The reference comes from Troilus and Cressida. Not untypical of Raven to pick effortlessly from an obscure play.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Advent 22

Empire of the Sun - J. G. Ballard

I must say I'm getting excited and I already know what's going to be number 24 on the Overgraduate calendar. How on edge must you be?

J. G. Ballard's novel of the second War is magnificent. Anthony Burgess (see Advent 11) reckoned it 'An incredible literary achievement and almost intolerably moving. A brilliant fusion of history, autobiography and imaginative speculation.' Too bloody right squire.

Wars came early to Shanghai, overtaking each other like the tides that raced up the Yangtze and returned to this gaudy city all the coffins cast adrift from the funeral piers of the Chinese Bund.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Advent 21

A Handful of Dust - Evelyn Waugh
... I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning, striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
The epigraph to this great novel is taken from Eliot's The Waste Land. Waugh then proceeds to be as good as the implied promise of the quotation and shows us great fear in small things. From my admittedly limited survey, I suggest Waugh as the greatest British twentieth century novelist. He has to be on this list and this is the narrow victor as my favourite. Tomorrow I may feel differently, but by then it will be too late. As an aside I am surprised to discover that it has never been the choice of a castaway on Desert Island Discs although George Malcolm and Edward Fox were allowed to cheat and select a Waugh omnibus . Not the spirit of the exercise at all.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Advent 20

Master and Commander - Patrick O'Brian

The extended sequence of the Aubrey/Maturin novels (twenty works in total) is not merely a notable literary achievement but also a substantial piece of scholarship. It begins with this novel and the chance meeting of our two heroes at a music party in the port of Mahon. Jack Aubrey is a young, heroic naval officer prone to disaster at shore. Stephen Maturin is a land-lubber surgeon, naturalist and spy. They form one of the great literary alliances. Alan Judd has called the sequence 'the greatest extended story since Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time.' Powell, by the way, narrowly misses out on inclusion in the calendar this year on the grounds that I cannot in truth select one novel which stands out sufficiently from the others.

Here is Alan Judd again, catching the strengths of the novels,
They [Aubrey and Maturin] are united by sympathy, respect, acknowledgement of difference, a sense of justice and affection. All this is suggested more in the spaces between words than expressed directly, except when they make music together. In the portrayal of this friendship we learn something of all friendship, just as in the series as a whole we learn of loyalty and betrayal, love and mutability, interest and humour. 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Advent 19

The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts - Louis de Bernieres

Forget Captain Corelli's Mandolin (which I do accept is jolly good) this, his first novel, is de Bernieres' best. I am not quite clear whether this is magic realism because all that Genre Studies stuff confuses me, but what I do know is that it contains quite the best description of depression I have ever read.
The two ideologies fought full-scale set-piece battles in his mind, and he drew further and further away from that clarity of vision which he had carried with him all his life. He looked back at that vision with regret and nostalgia, but also thought of it as a time of immaturity. Like all intelligent men who no longer know what to think, he sank into a depression so paralysing that he became estranged from himself.


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Advent 18

Cities of the Plain - Cormac McCarthy

This is the final and ferocious conclusion to McCarthy's Border Trilogy which I recommend in its magnificent entirety. It is about men born out of time and about an unarticulated American mythology. It is quite brilliantly written. Requires concentration but this is one you should make time for. On a scale of one to ten, this merits eleven.
She patted his hand. Gnarled, ropescarred, speckled from the sun and the years of it. The ropy veins that bound them to his heart. There was map enough for men to read. There God's plenty of signs and wonders to make a landscape. To make a world.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Advent 17

A Perfect Spy - John le Carre

Philip Roth (who let's face it is entitled to an opinion) called it 'the best English novel since the war'. Certainly I think it a perfectly constructed work which escapes the perceived confines of its genre - one most certainly need not like spy thrillers to admire this book. If I were teaching creative writing this is the book I would make them read as an example of good practice.

Like yesterday's choice this one sits in Anglesey - I first read it here when on holiday and I associate it with happy, summer days which just goes to prove that good writing can even blind one to the privations of the Welsh summer.

Lights had come on, ambulances were racing on the spot without apparently knowing where the spot was, police and plain-clothes men were falling over each other and the fools on the roof were shouting at the fools in the square and England was being saved from things it didn't know were threatening it. But Jack Brotherhood was standing to attention like a dead centurion at his post, and everyone was watching a dignified little lady in a dressing gown coming down the steps of the house.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Advent 16

Pigeon Post - Arthur Ransome
I have often been asked how I came to write Swallows and Amazons. The answer is that it had its beginning long,long ago when,as children, my brothers, my sisters and I spent most of our holidays on a farm at the far end of Coniston. We played in or on the lake or on the hills above it finding friends in the farmers and shepherds and charcoal-burners whose smoke rose from the coppice woods along the shore ... I could not help writing it. It almost wrote itself.
So wrote Arthur Ransome in his Author's Note to preface the 1958 editions of the Swallows and Amazons series of novels. I read and re-read all the copies in Erdington Library and own various editions myself. These are children's books written with adult aplomb. They do not patronise. They stimulate and entertain. They exude optimism and humanity. I choose Pigeon Post, my copy of which lives on my bedside table in Anglesey so that I can dip into it whenever I am there and wish to be more fully transported to my innocent age.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Advent 15

The Blind Assassin - Margaret Atwood

Winners of the Booker Prize do not always carry a reputation for readability but this book is not difficult at all. It has been said before and more politely but Atwood is very clearly a right clever sod. Top draw deluxe.

But I leave myself in your hands. What choice do I have? By the time you read this last page, that, if anywhere - is the only place I will be.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Advent 14

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut

This might, I suppose, be categorised as an example of the fantasy genre but it is so much more than that - also a war story, a love story and a sharp black comedy. It shares with Gatsby the great grace of being readable in only a couple of sittings. So it goes.

I really did go back to Dresden with Guggenheim money (God love it) in 1967. It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Advent 13

Wise Children - Angela Carter

According to some people (well, alright, they include me) Shakespeare is all about duality. And this glorious book is positively Shakespearean in that respect - it plays with North/South of the river, rive gauche/droite, legitimacy/bastardy. It achieves its comic effect by often vulgar means. It is totally wonderful.

I always think there was a sort of mean connection between their birth and our puberty. Typical dirty trick that Saskia might pull on us, that we should turn into women just at the very moment when they turn into babies. Always a different generation. That's the rub. We've never been equals. They've always had that edge on us. So rich. So well-connected. So legitimate.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Advent 12

Catch 22 - Joseph Heller

Yes I know that this one has been in a previous Overgraduate advent calendar, but this year is all about books and I simply cannot leave out this one which redefined the possibilities of fiction so far as I understood them more than three and a half decades ago. Brilliant, exciting, troubling, polymesmeric indeed. Home to another great opening featuring a cleric,
It was love at first sight.
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
This book is so good that I notice I have paid it the ultimate compliment of using a virgin betting slip as a book-marker in my copy.
Tomorrow, another book I've mentioned before and which is anarchically funny

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Advent 11

Earthly Powers - Anthony Burgess

I promised you the best opening line in literature and here it is,
It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.
Anthony Burgess was a great talent, apparently slightly miffed at not getting his full critical dues. I have my own theory about this and it has to do with his sporting a quite atrocious comb-over. I might be wrong but I'm not sure that such a barnet has ever garnered the Nobel Prize. Mind you the frigging EU picked up its Peace Prize this week thus allowing Baroso to get all sanctimonious with us, so Burgess, were he alive, might feel he was in better company with all the rest of us who've never won anything.

Back to the novel - Earthly Powers lives up to all the promise of its wild beginning.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Advent 10

Brighton Rock - Graham Greene

Tomorrow we will have what I believe is the best opening line in literature, but today we have the most chilling closing sentence. You will have to read the novel to understand why. It will not be time wasted.

She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Advent 9

The Jungle Book - Rudyard Kipling

Once upon a time there was an odd, noisy little boy called David who was determined to join the Cub Scouts as soon as he was old enough. And being a wilful child he determined that he should prepare for this event by reading The Jungle Book before his eighth birthday. And this he did and cemented his love of books.

Oh hear the call! - Good hunting all
That keep the Jungle Law

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Advent 8

Jennings Goes To School - Anthony Buckeridge
It would be a waste of time to describe Linbury Court Preparatory School in great detail, because, if you are going to follow Jennings through his school career, you will be certain to alter the shape of the building so that it becomes, in imagination, your own school.
And so I did, through reading every one of Buckeridge's charming and often riotously funny books. These books gave me the greatest press of my unstarred life when my adaptation (in which I also acted) of the Jennings books prompted the Erdington News to lead with 'Boredom Drove David, Age 12, to Write Play'. All downhill after that I'm afraid. Failed to train on in racing parlance. I never did hang out much with the cool kids.


Advent 7

Under An English Heaven - Robert Radcliffe

My father and grandfather were both air force officers, the latter as a member of bomber crews. This novel celebrates the particular merit of that warrior class. Ordinary men made extraordinary by combat.

A simple stone cross had been erected before it, and a brass plaque read: 'To the memory of the men of the 520th Bombardment Group, 8th US Army Air Force, Bedenham, England, who gave their lives in the name of freedom, 1942-1945. Their name liveth for evermore.' 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Advent 6

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

You know how some things are so hyped that when you finally come to experience them, they are a let-down. Well that is exactly what I expected with Gatsby. Nothing could surely be that good. But it's the damnedest thing - it really is that good. Thanks to Rachel because she studied it for 'A' level and it was that which made me read it. As with most things in life, she understands the book better than I do but even I am not enough of a churl to resent my children being cleverer than I am. On the contrary, I take great pride in it.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Advent 5

Berlin Game - Len Deighton

The great sadness of the fall of the Berlin Wall is that there is no call now for the old-fashioned spy thriller, in which all the protagonists are grubby and compromised.

This is an exemplar of the genre by a most professional and skilled writer.

The competence of the writing is not the only aspect of this book which appeals. No, I have vivid memories of the time when I read it - I was not, as they say, in a good place and this was a pleasing distraction.

'How long have we been sitting here?' I said. I picked up the field glasses and studied the bored young American soldier in his glass-sided box.
'Nearly a quarter of a century,' said Werner Volkman.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Advent 4

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens

I have to admit that I have always struggled with Dickens, indeed with the Victorians in general, apart, of course, from my fixation with my boy Walter Bagehot. Bagehot, incidentally, rather despised Dickens.

But I stuck with the project and David Copperfield and the Kindle came to my rescue. One of the great strengths of the Kindle is the array of classics you can download for nothing and carry around for those moments when you can actually face them. Where else but my pocket can you find cheek by jowl Das Kapital and the King James Bible?

Dickens himself seems to have had a soft spot for Copperfield as the Preface to a later edition revealed,
Of all my books, I like this the best. It will be easily believed that I am a fond parent to every child of my fancy, and that no one can ever love that family as dearly as I love them. But, like many good parents, I have in my heart a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Advent 3

Debt of Honour - Tom Clancy
In retrospect, it would seem an odd way to start a war. Only one of the participants knew what was really happening, and even that was a coincidence.
So commences this high-grade piece of conspiracy hokum. Doubtless I have shredded what little credibility I have as literary critic but one thing you have to say about Tom Clancy - boy can he do plot. Never mind the deficiencies in characterisation, blah, blah blah, feel the width of the plot.

This novel also (spoiler alert) anticipated the mode of most infamous terrorist outrage by eight years.
So, thus far we have had two books for children and an airport pot-boiler. Tomorrow I will try to redeem myself. 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent 2

The House At Pooh Corner - A.A. Milne

Another one for children of all ages. Don't worry all you serious souls there will be some grown-up books later in the season.

I've had a good old think about this and, do you know what, I think the Pooh books may just be the funniest in the English language. And yes I have considered Dickens (funny but lacks brevity which is the soul of, well you know), Wodehouse (undoubtedly a contender), Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim (brutally funny), Three Men In A Boat (considered and wholeheartedly rejected - sorry chaps I just don't get it), Waugh, Raven, Powell etc etc. No if you want to laugh and feel unsullied about it, you can't beat a good Pooh. Apologies I couldn't resist that, which explains my own absence from the list I suppose.

One day when Pooh Bear had nothing else to do, he thought he would do something, so he went round to Piglet's house to see what Piglet was doing. It was still snowing as he stumped over the the white forest track, and he expected to find Piglet warming his toes in front of his fire, but to his surprise he saw that the door was open, and the more he looked inside the more Piglet wasn't there.
Not a wasted word. Top prose from the Boy Milne.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Advent 1

The Silver Sword - Ian Serraillier

A book from my childhood but a book for all times and ages. Its epigraph is from Tippett's Child of Our Time,
Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope.
The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring.

Much to my delight I have located my ancient Puffin paperback copy this morning, priced both in old and in decimal currency so my guess is I first read this in 1970 or 71. I do know it is a book I returned to numerous times for its sense of dignity and warmth. I discover from the battered old pages that the illustrations are by C.Walter Hodges, the author of another chidhood favourite, The Overland Launch.