Monthly Archives: October 2013

A Hallowe’en Tale: The Signalman by Charles Dickens

Vintage spooks from chilling tales, brought to you this All Hallows’ Eve by John Maguire

Halloa! Below there,

So begins Charles Dickens’ short tale of the supernatural, The Signalman.

A ghost story of quality should be simple and use language to create atmosphere, tension and generally – to coin a cliché – raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck. Dickens delivers with a chilling compact example of a classic ghost story; a shocking account of one man’s haunting amidst rails and tram noises.

The tale first appeared in the Christmas edition of the magazine All Year Round, in 1866. It is believed that the master wordsmith used personal experience from his direct involvement in the Staplehurst Rail Crash of 1865. After surviving the tragedy, he nursed other victims, some of whom passed away whilst he was with them. Dickens suffered what would now be known as post-traumatic stress syndrome, losing his voice for two weeks.

staplehurst

From that day onwards he sought other means of transport when travelling. In a letter to an old school friend Thomas Mitton, he conveyed his feelings.

I am a little shaken, not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, But by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and the dead which was most horrible.

The celebrated author even risked his life after the derailment to clamber back into the carriage to retrieve his working manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. Some say he never got over this tragedy and five years after the crash, he died on the anniversary of the day it had occurred, 9th June 1870.

The location of a railway line for a ghost story is quite unsettling. Places that are usually bustling and busy when completely still and empty can convey an unnameable terror; think of an open plan office after hours, a desolate 24 hour supermarket with its lonely aisles, or a completely empty swimming pool. Dickens cleverly taps into the public collected subconscious, the unnerving attitude to the transitional times of industrialisation. (Rail travel was relatively new in Victorian England). He also very cleverly preys on one of humankind’s universal traits, that of curiosity.

the signal man

The story unfolds through the eyes of the narrator and the Signalman is never given a name, which creates a cold distance from the onset. He had fixed eyes and a saturnine face. The reader shares with the narrator’s bewilderment at the strange behaviour of the signalman.

The monstrous thought came into my mind….that this was a spirit not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.

The troubled signalman keeps staring at a bell that only he can hear ring, this everyday object is used as a menacing instrument to scare.

There is a celebrated TV adaptation of the piece by Andrew Davies, first broadcast in 1976. This seminal work stands alongside the 1968 adaptation of M.R James’ Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad, both outstanding examples of the less is more school of horror. (The latter was re-made in 2010 with distinguished actor John Hurt playing the protagonist).

Charles Dickens and M.R James recognise that ghost stories work at their best when the reader is taken on a journey, questions and has to fill in the blanks with their imagination. It is not necessarily what is said, but what is not, the unknown that gives that all important shiver factor. You know a story has worked when you quicken the speed when passing an open door to a darkened room in your familiar home, you awake and rapidly seek the light switch and when bedroom objects take on a monstrous guise, a simple coat and hat stand can appear as a hooded shadowy figure.

So this Hallowe’en, read by candlelight either alone or out loud to friends and family, a simple ghost story. This will indeed, I promise be more of a fearful experience than sitting down to watch SAW 14 or another similar gore fest.

Good night and sleep tight!

the signal man 2

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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

reading list

Breasts. Some of us have them. Do you have them? How often do you think about them? (You may answer this question even if you are not thinking of your own.) Do you worry about their size, what people you meet think about their size, or whether sexual partners are turned off by their size? Are you always comparing your breasts to those of others? Do you find it impossible to enjoy even long-wished-for experiences because of thoughts like these? Even in moments of danger does your mind stray to the size of your potentially inadequate breasts?

If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ and you are a highly sought after physical therapist with a sideline in lucrative contract killings, you should probably do everyone a favour and stop obsessing. Call a plastic surgeon, use some of the pile of money you have sitting in a safety deposit box and get the blooming things done. Go up a cup size. Or two! Get the silhouette you have always known you deserved. And then we can get on with the rest of the book because you are one of two main characters in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 and frankly, there are bigger things to worry about than the size of your breasts (sorry… Not sorry.)

In over 30 years of breast-owning, I have never thought about a pair as much as I have about Aomame’s. It feels cruel to a writer whose books I have enjoyed in the past, but someone needs to say: ‘Haruki, give it a rest, lad’. In his defence, it could be argued that Aomame is living out a suspended adolescence, where girls can fixate on such superficialities, and that when given the chance to change her appearance in order to evade capture more effectively, she declines. However, when this happens:

Aomame mourned the deaths of these two friends deeply. It saddened her to think that these women were forever gone from the world. And she mourned their lovely breasts – breasts that had vanished without a trace.

The reaction is laughter rather than sorrow. Only the weight of the tome and an unreturned rental deposit on my apartment prevented me from throwing it across the room with great force, à la Dorothy Parker. It isn’t as if Mr Murakami is some crazed misogynist who doesn’t know any better. Countless examples prove that he can write women well, when he manages to lift his literary gaze higher than their chests. Aomame’s boss, the Dowager, is the kind of kick-ass old lady that everyone needs on their side: tracking down powerful abusers, maintaining a haven for their victims and dispensing quiet justice from a hothouse filled with butterflies. Fuka-Eri is a precocious literary talent, despite suffering from something akin to dyslexia. Yet her ‘beautifully developed’ full breasts are the feature that rates a mention almost every time the teenager appears. To add balance, so do her small, beautiful ears, if you are playing Haruki Murakami Bingo. Prepare to shout ‘full house!’

What bedevils 1Q84 is the makings of a great story trapped somewhere within these pages, that unfortunately isn’t one you can read unless you want to get busy with a red pen, scissors and glue. Editorial input seems to have been limited to pats on the back while waiting for the Nobel Prize Committee to call. It is all the more frustrating because the amount of time that a book this size demands in investment would suggest that readers be rewarded in return. There are small glimmers of interest. The author is particularly good on the subject of cults, the origins of the Sakigake group are gripping and the menace and influence they are able to wield genuinely alarming. Underworld lawyer Ushikawa’s backhanded property dealings are a nod to the asset price bubble which is about to inflate, hobbling Japan’s economy for two decades and counting. The Little People are another frightening entity on first appearance, albeit later defanged and left woefully under-utilised. Tengo’s co-conspirator Komatsu has a great deal of interest to say on the nature of publishing stardom and the manipulation of the reading public, bestseller lists and the patrons of literary prizes (ahem). Unfortunately these potent elements are diluted in a soup of double moons, cats and small breasts, until it begins to feel like a parody.

Perhaps the biggest letdown, remembering the many memorable characters that inhabit Murakami World, is the weakness of the two leads. It is difficult to feel the affection with which we regard, say, Watanabe’s meanderings into maturity in Norwegian Wood, for the romance of breast-obsessed Aomame and her opposite number, Tengo. Tengo could be an early forerunner of the much lamented ‘herbivore men’, except that he seems to be getting more than his fair share of the sex, which even by Murakami standards is decidedly icky. Haunted through his most intimate moments by a brief sexual memory from infancy concerning his mother, fantasising about the 10-year old Aomame, a sex scene with Fuka-Eri so cringe-y it was nominated for a Bad Sex award, Tengo could be a poster boy for abstinence. Vaginas are hairless and appear ‘freshly made’, in which case they are entered, or possess ‘thick, rich [pubic] hair’ in which case they are not. Murakami could be satirising the youth-fixated sexual landscape and its effect on women’s bodies – or he might just dig really young girls. And we are meant to root for Aomame and Tengo as star-cross’d lovers, despite him getting his rocks off with young girls and her prowling Roppongi bars to pick up balding middle-aged men. It is all a far cry from Orwell’s Junior Anti-Sex League.

Much has been made of the inspiration provided by Nineteen Eighty-Four (nine in Japanese is ‘kyu’, hence the ‘Q’, the Little People as the opposite of Big Brother) but it is a struggle to note any deeper connection between the two. However, if Mr Murakami is looking to George Orwell for inspiration, there is this passage, from Why I Write:

I will only say that of late years I have tried to write less picturesquely and more exactly. In any case I find that by the time you have perfected any style of writing, you have always outgrown it…

Perhaps Murakami has outgrown his own motifs, writing with more than half an eye on the judges in Stockholm blurred his focus, or it is possible that he went and sat in a well halfway through and the publishers got a ghost-writer to finish it from screwed up notes retrieved from the bin, or via a box marked ‘patent pending ACME MURAKAMI THEME GENERATOR’. Like Fuka-Eri’s work, Air Chrysalis, this is a book crying out for a determined editor backed by a ruthless publisher. In tests, 8 out of 10 talking cats said ‘It’s no Kafka on the Shore, now, is it, mate?’

J. C. Greenway’s copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is 266 pages long and she has never tried to throw it across a room.

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The Bibliophile’s Cathedral – Shakespeare and Co, Paris

Here at ten minutes hate we love a good bookshop. John Maguire writes the first in a soon-to-be-series of our favourites.

The City of Light, Paris has long been a somewhat creative Bermuda triangle, poets, writers  and artists, all navigate towards this Metropolis. Some disappear into their own egos whilst others emerge from the experience with robust pieces of artistic endeavour.

The Catholics have their Vatican and shrines such as Lourdes, the Pagans have Stonehenge, the Muslims, Mecca, while bibliophiles have Shakespeare and Co in Paris. Every chattel of literature will head towards this celebrated book store. Situated in the shadow of the Gothic Notre Dame, it comprises two buildings on Paris’ Left Bank.

The original venture was begun by Sylvia Beach in the Rue de L’Odeon in 1922. The establishment has been associated with writers such as Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Henry Miller, to name a few.  Having a lasting impression on the creative, Paris has an intoxicating effect on all its visitors,

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.

– Ernest Hemingway

Beach closed the store down in World War Two and urban myth suggests it was closed due to her refusal to give a German Officer the last copy of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.  Joyce was known to call the store, ‘Stratford on Odeon’.

The bookstore also acted as a library and it was here that readers could gain access to all kinds of literature, including the then UK-banned Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Shakespeare and Co, Paris

However, the spirit of this cultural haven is now continued in a new location. George Whitman opened his book store Le Mistral on the site of a 16th Century Monastery. It soon became a literary rabbit hole and attracted the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. The proprietor renamed the store Shakespeare and Co when Sylvia Beach passed away in 1964, as a tribute to this legend of literature.

bookstore-Shakespeare-and-Co-George-Whitman

Aspiring writers are permitted to stay in beds amongst the books upstairs in return for work. One resident James Mercer even penned a book about his experience, ‘Time Was Soft There – A Paris sojourn at Shakespeare and Co’, a depiction of subculture Parisian life. Whitman claimed that over 40,000 people had slept over through the years.

The eccentric figure died in December 2011, passing the lantern light on to his daughter, Sylvia Beach Whitman, clearly the energy and passion for the printed page is embedded in her. She has established a biennial literary festival,  FestivalandCo,  where such writers as Jeanette Winterson and Paul Auster have come to show their respects. The store has also featured as a backdrop in the art-house film, Before Sunset (Richard Linklater) and Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen).

Inside books grow from every part of the rooms, creeping paper roots trail through the floorboards. Mountains of volumes clamour up the walls, taking over any available space. Bricks and mortar crammed with literary thought, a building seeping with pure knowledge.

Some of the aged books appear to have bloomed new blossom, in the shape of the shiny new volumes on sale. It is indeed a book aficionado’s Utopia. A magical site, an interchange between the past and present, distant voices amplified. Here the reader can in fact commune with the minds of ancestry, sparks of ideas live on, helping to resolve problems, stave off loneliness, to comfort, to aid. The books serve to help unlock potential and provide inoculation from the enemy of the human spirit, procrastination.

If in Paris, book lovers must pop in and leaf through the shelves, soak in the fresh smell of paper on a par with any mountain air. It would indeed be a literary sin not to visit and if you do not, it will be a case that you will have to read ten Spike Milligan poems, four Charles Bukowskis and three Lorcas, solely as penance.

Paris Wall Newspaper, Shakespeare and Co

Bookstore pictures, author’s own. Picture of George Whitman from Sense & Sensibility

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Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys

John Maguire with an evocative review of a book that demands space on any ‘to read’ list…

Edvard Munch - Anxiety, 1894

Edvard Munch – Anxiety, 1894

Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Grey, has the inquisitive strapline brandished on the front cover, “Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth?” But please do not be put off by this somewhat cliché, tugging at the heart-strings sentiment. The tale focuses on Lina, a young intelligent Lithuanian girl who has a passion for drawing and art, heavily in awe of the painter Edvard Munch and his ideas,

From my rotting body flowers shall grow, and I am in them and that is eternity, isn’t that beautiful?

One night in 1941, Soviet guards usurp Lina and her family out of the family homestead. The clan are separated from Lina’s father, an Academic, and hurled into a dilapidated cattle cart shamelessly labelled Thieves and Prostitutes. So begins their savage journey northward bound, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the desolate land of Siberia. The book highlights the cruel psychological, mental and physical torture that forced labour brings. The barbaric pain that the people suffer emanates off the very pages. The verisimilitude is indubitable.

Lithuanians deported to Trofimovsk, Siberia, 1949

Lithuanians deported to Trofimovsk in the region of the Laptev Sea, Siberia, an area with permafrost north of the Polar Circle. The photo is from 1949. These deportations started in 1941. In 1942-43, a third of the deported people died, mainly children and elderly people. Photo: The Museum of Genocide Victims, Vilnius, Lithuania.

Lina’s escape is through her creativity and the story illustrates the redemptive power of art, the way it can turn negative experience into positive. The very impact it can have on the human soul. Beauty in amongst horrific chaotic conditions of wrongness. It reiterates the words of Albert Camus,

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

By using first hand family accounts and the memories scarred in the minds of the survivors from Stalin’s atrocities, Sepetys makes real an epoch in history that one would definitely like to think was unreal. Lina’s imagination allows her to vent her spleen,

I painted a rug being lifted and a huge Soviet broom sweeping us under it.

It is estimated that Josef Stalin killed more than 20 million people during his reign of terror and Lina’s story is one of many unspoken. In 1939, the Soviet Union occupied the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Shortly after the Kremlin came up with lists of people, lawyers, teachers, doctors, military servicemen, writers, musicians, artists and librarians  all accused of being anti-Soviet. These people would be sent to prison, exterminated or deported into slavery in Siberia.

The Baltic States lost more than a third of their population during this season of annihilation.

wire

Those who survived ten to fifteen years in Siberia returned in the mid-fifties to find their homes pillaged and occupied by Soviets. The returned people were classified as criminals and put under surveillance by the KGB (formerly the NKVD).

To discuss the past atrocities would result in immediate incarceration.

The horror stories were kept silent. In this modern life, there are many current continual pressures, but I would suggest consuming this provoking piece of literature, just to refresh you on how lucky some of us are in this world.

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