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Mr Levett's Scottish Tour (Part Two)

Bothwell Castle

In Which Jeremy Levett and family continue their explorations north o' the border.

We left the New Lanark youth hostel early on Sunday morning and followed the Clyde to Hamilton. First on the day’s list of entertainments was what remains of the country house Chatelherault. The various Dukes of Hamilton owned a truly absurd amount of land in Scotland, which when the Industrial Revolution rolled around turned out to contain extremely lucrative quantities of coal; some of the resulting funds were spent on a gigantic blinged-out country house, Chatelherault. In one of those Ironic Twists of Fate you don’t generally expect to happen in the real world, the ground beneath it then subsided due to coal mining, and much of the house had to be abandoned and demolished. All that remains today is the hunting lodge and kennels for the hounds.

That the kennels are a decent-sized, lavishly outfitted country-house-with-visitor-centre on their own (though at something of a slant) should say quite a lot about exactly how rich these people were.  Further along the Clyde (and the book) was Bothwell Castle, gorgeous, crumbling, red sandstone, and the Hamilton Mausoleum, of same family, to bury each other and commemorate their, I dunno, money? Apparently the land-underminin’, rent-chargin’, miner-exploitin’, coat-turnin’ (switched sides a couple of times in various failed attempts at Scots independence) Hamiltons weren’t all that popular among the locals. No idea why. 

Livingstone does a spot of converting.
Further doon the watter we explored the house Livingstone grew up in, a wonderful museum to intrepid exploring and missionary zeal littered with interesting artifacts and stories, and had a light but satisfying lunch at the visitor centre there. The fence around his garden was iron made in the shape of cowhide shields and assegai. The house was part of a tenement block attending another cotton mill, another New Lanark, that was torn down long ago; all that remains now is a scale model in the house, the house itself, and a weir a little upstream. The weir, with its more recent concrete salmon-leap stairs, was beginning to crumble beneath a cantilever bridge apparently made of big green pipes.

The Falkirk Wheel
(Photo by
Dave Morris)
We dumped Oliver at the train station on a slow train that would eventually become a fast train to Bristol, at considerable expense. He has to be home to do Stage Crew stuff for a school production, which is going to be in a week or so at… the Edinburgh Fringe, when we’re in Edinburgh. Almost like we planned it that way. Then back on the road, heading north.

We stopped at part of the Antonine Wall, a walk which turned out to lead all the way to the Falkirk Wheel. The Antonine isn’t as much to look at as Hadrian’s Wall, just a shallow ditch and some oddly shaped bumps in the ground to the average eye. But when it comes to fortifications mine isn’t an average eye, and to me the place is still hellishly impressive a couple of millennia on. Roman defence strategy… Roman defence strategy is worth a post of its own. We didn’t venture all the way to the base of the Falkirk Wheel, or linger in the rain long enough for a boat to come and set it turning, but we saw the row of great hoops-on-sticks and the lifting apparatus clearly from the hill above. Back through the woods to the car, while express trains thundered by in both directions.

We headed for the Highlands, stopping briefly for tea at the Crieff Hydro, a huge, glorious booze-rehabilitation thing turned hotel, playing host to yet another wedding. People had been getting married at New Lanark and Chatelherault, and though Scots weddings are at least much more entertaining to look at than English weddings (all those kilts and highland bling) it was beginning to feel as though we were being stalked by a single sustained marriage party.

Finally, the Highlands proper. There seem to be two kinds. When in the valleys (or are they glens here?) it all seemed absolutely stereotypical postcard material; you couldn’t move for picturesque woods and oh-so-whimsical Victorian hunting lodge holiday castles sitting by meandering, babbling streamlets in the shadow of crags, with deer among the trees and big birds of prey turning slow circles overhead in every valley. But as soon as the roads started gaining some height, the entire landscape changed.

I was expecting the place to get more like Snowdonia further north, but where in Wales the glaciers carved the valleys apart and left pyramidal peaks and crag-rimmed horseshoes, here the ice sheets covered the mountaintops themselves, leaving the peaks and glens uniformly smooth and gently sloped. Over this endlessly rumpled landscape areas of grass and heather alternate in seemingly random shapes, leaving a patchwork green and brown like a bacterium’s-eye-view of a camouflage jacket. There were hardly any crofts, or cows, or straggly sheep. Most of the buildings were abandoned, lying in various states of disrepair. Some were simply missing windows and roof slates, some without roofs or walls altogether, some fell so long ago or were destroyed so thoroughly that they were noticeable only as slightly bigger patches of rocks among the low, knobbly lines that were once their attendant dry-stone walls. People have been suffering here for a very long time.

The Fall

By our man with the DVD player and no social life, Philip Reeve.

It's always depressing when film critics complain that a movie is all style over substance, as they did with Avatar at the end of last year - stunning visually, of course, but oh, my dears, the story...  I think it's worth remembering that the movies started out as fairground attractions: visual roller-coaster rides which appealed straight to the subconscious.  It was only later that they began to be considered as art and expected to tell complex and original stories too.  And while complex and original stories are all well and good,  I'm still happy to settle down and watch pure spectacle sometimes.  The problem is, it's rare these days to find pure spectacle that doesn't look like the rough draft for a computer game and hasn't been done a thousand times before.

So how wonderful to find a film that looks both utterly beautiful and not quite like anything else I've ever seen.  Like all the films I really like it's basically barking mad, and it tells a pretty engaging story into the bargain.

I don't get to the cinema much these days, and have little idea what films are around, but the fact that I'd never heard of The Fall (2006) suggests to me that it didn't do particularly well on its release (apologies if I'm wrong and this the umpteenth review of it you've read).  It was directed by 'Tarsem' whom a quick Wikipedia search reveals to be Tarsem Singh,  a director of commercials and pop videos, who funded much of this extraordinary epic from his own pocket - a pocket which must be extraordinarily deep, since this is one of the most spectacular films I've seen in a long while (and as far as I could tell it was all real, not CGI).

It starts in the early days of Hollywood, where five-year-old Alexandria is confined to hospital with a broken arm.  (She's played by Cantica Untaru, who is chubbier than the average child star, has no front teeth, speaks broken English that is sometimes hard to catch, and spends the whole movie with her arm raised at a peculiar angle in its plaster cast.  Tarsem gets a marvellous performance out of her; funny, touching, completely natural.)  Whilst wandering around the wards she befriends a young stuntman, Roy, who has been injured jumping from a bridge in his first movie.  He starts to tell her an epic story about a gang of bandits (which includes Charles Darwin and his pet monkey, Wallace) who have sworn revenge on the odious Governor Odious, and as he tells it the film takes flight, leaving the dim, shady hospital rooms behind and soaring off into a fantasy which seems part childish imagination (the characters are played by the people Alexandria knows around the hospital; the villain's henchmen wear armour extrapolated from the leather helmet and apron of the radiographer) and part deranged fashion shoot.  The story itself is about as basic as a fantasy tale can get, but oh, the visuals!  It's shot on location everywhere; a butterfly-shaped reef in Fiji, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Hagia Sophia, the Pyramids, Jodphur, Ladakh, Namibia, Prague, Rome...  And beautifully shot, too, with every frame composed and lit like a high-end advert by the Planet Earth Tourist Board.  The burning tree!  The underwater elephants wading through those blizzards of silver fish!  The red palanquin being hauled by an army of slaves across a bone-white desert!  And, every now and again, the necessary return to the hospital, where a darker and more complicated story unfolds, and where the beauty is more subtle (there is a wonderful shot of a brazier burning in an orange grove at twilight, the firelight glowing through the circular holes in its side rhyming with the fallen fruit scattered on the grass around it).

A couple of times I thought I detected a reference to Zhang Yimou's Hero (World Heritage Sites + cast of thousands = wowness).  Otherwise, it's hard to say what other films The Fall could be likened to.  It's a bit like a not-crap version of Terry Gilliam's Baron Munchausen with much better photography and none of the weak sub-Python comedy turns.  It's a bit like something Peter Greenaway might have made if his target demographic went to the Odeon instead of the ICA.  But I suspect US movie-maven Roger Ebert had it about right when he wrote, "You might want to see it for no other reason than that it exists.  There will never be another like it."


Natalie Crawford reviews Haywired, a 'Steampunk Fairytale' by Alex Keller

Reading this book, I felt remarkably underdressed. I wanted to be sat in a wing-back chair, maybe wearing a cape and chugging on a bubble pipe. I have the chair, but sadly not the whimsical ensemble to match. I find pretending to be someone else rather therapeutic and fun – which is exactly how I felt stepping into the world of Ludwig von Guggenstein.

This rather unremarkable boy has something of an unconventional life, living with his eccentric father in a castle rattling with secrets. After a fatal farming accident, caused by a contraption developed in the Guggenstein household, Ludwig and his father become social outcasts – blamed for the demise of poor Mr Pewsnitt. It is then that those secrets in dark corners come to Ludwig’s attention and the hideous folds of truth begin to unfurl. 

Haywired begins as a simple runaway adventure but before long, terror sets in as Ludwig and his cast of ramshackle unlikelies are chased by ‘ghoulish machines’. The reader is gripped throughout as the crew attempt to escape and save not only their own lives, but those of people across other enchantingly captured lands. 

The story maybe fairly straight forward on the surface, but intrigue and suspicion pour from the pages thanks to rich characterisation. There is also a dark hopelessness as the story weaves on, a sense of imminent foreboding caused by an all too familiar hand. Even though the subject matter maybe somewhat fantastical, there is a solid reality to this world, a physical quality that makes it unnerving. 

But, it is not all fight-or-flight, heavy duty drama, there is definitely a light thread running through; an essence of fun (hence the need for the outfit) necessary to make it enticing for the intended youth market. But the levels of intrigue in Keller’s ideas make it just as enjoyable for us slightly older folk. 

I am excited to find out what happens to his characters next, and just what mesmerising spin Alex Keller will take us on in future incarnations. If the suspiciously ‘missing’ pieces of back story are not enough to have you demanding more, the ending certainly will. If you are anything like me, you will be cursing Alex Keller for not having the sequel ready to read now!

Haywired will be published in September by Mogzilla Books.

Read more of Natalie's book and film reviews, and some teachers' notes for Haywired, on  The Writer Side of Life

Mr Levett's Scottish Tour (Part One)

The Bee's Jeremy Levett, along with his parents, and brothers Nick and Oliver, recently made an expedition north o' the border.  This is his Tue Account of their epic journey...

Take me out to the Penrith chippie, where the food is hot and the air is nippy

Up at something unreasonably early to dump the tortoise on lovely Havercrofts, then the long road north, with Oliver at the helm anticipating his next driving test. Leaving Bristol, we talked about a chap trying to exterminate grey squirrels in his area and replace them with red ones – someone determined to be on the wrong side of natural selection, I feel – then I florped over onto the bags and slept until we were at the northeastern bounds of the Lake District. For Americans and other heathen foreigners, Bristol to Penrith is about a third of the way across the United Kingdom; shut up, what we lack in size we make up for in history.

And it was very different terrain. Everywhere there were these hills. While Bristol is full of murderously steep hills it’s so urban you don’t really see them, and the surrounding countryside is pretty subdued. I am born and raised a stadtkind and am always amazed when I see naked countryside in decent quantity and a shape other than Flat; here it was, dirty great lumps in the surface of the earth, whole ranges of them, punctuated with woods and clusters of white spoil-heaps, bristling with conveyors and gantries. Wild terrain, but tamed land on top of it. Artificial looking mounds and a few collapsed houses lay among corrugated-roofed farms and fields irregularly delineated by dry-stone walls. People started building dry-stone walls here centuries ago and have carried on pretty much without stopping since. We passed a forest of wind turbines at the National Park boundary and wondered about Lake District nimbies; more idiots determined to be on the wrong side of history. One of the turbines had its blades feathered and wasn’t turning. It’s always a shame to see technology without hustle.

Lunch in Penrith at a chippie very proud of its awards, and possibly responsible for the generally rotund shape of the local Penrithers; had an "Angel Burger" (double cheeseburger with mayonnaise; the counterpart "Devil Burger" had sweet chili instead) and the meat was deep fried rather than grilled. We weren't even in Scotland yet, and the OIL IT UP approach was evident; I love a place that takes its cholesterol seriously.

Wanlockhead Lead Mining Museum, the famous Museum
of Lead Mining at Wanlockhead.
Near the source of the Clyde we found the hill Scoular Anderson had stood on writing Journey Down the Clyde, and took a photograph to match it; the bridge has been rebuilt, the trains that streak down the line are different, but the pylons, the river, the hills are the same. Up into those same hills we drove, to find the Wanlockhead Lead Mining Museum, past a deep depression carved down the years by the slowly slipping meanders of a river (I wanted to take pictures, there was one amazing side of a meander which clearly showed all the stages of erosion and regeneration: bare rocks, bushes, scrub, soft even turf - but Mum said I'd get a chance when we drove back along that route; we didn't) and under hilltops sprouting arrays of ominous-looking, half-hidden radio aerials. We found the museum, but the staff were absurdly fussy and nannylike, trying to plot our itinerary constantly, glancing at their watches, tutting; you got the impression they were desperately happy just to have someone to talk to, as well as a good idea of why they were so desperate. The museum itself was good, though, having shaken off an escort. It had a bunch of exhibits of Various Rocks, lead ingots and fire-marks and big old flanged bullets with their moulds, a scale model of the mine's beam engine, a poem Robbie Burns had written to pay the blacksmith for shoeing his horse (cheapskate). There was surprisingly little silver. Up the hill there was an ancient miners' subscription library full of relentlessly Improving books, all Victorian science and natural history, and more psalms than I would have thought existed, and down the hill past the ancient, rickety beam engine we were treated to a tour through the history of miners' huts (given by the museum's token non-overbearing staffer, who happened to be the token male one). At one point the landowner had granted the locals the right to build houses on any flat ground they could find, which given the scenery wasn’t the offer it sounds like. The mine was all in ruins, littered with the shattered, rusting detritus of various eras, and the cafe was closed when we returned, so back into the car, and another few leagues on to Lanark.

"...and I'll take the high road."

"Is anything worn under the kilt?"
"Nay, it's all in purrfect wurrking orrder..." etc.
There’s two things I’ve noticed that characterise this place. To avoid National Stereotypes better occupied by sporrans, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and deep-fried things, “this place” is southwestern Scotland at the baby end of the Clyde; Lanark and the pre-Lanark bits a soft southern pansy like myself would drive through to get there. Though I don’t really need to apologise for anything; I grew up in Glasgow, sod you.

One is the architecture. Buildings round here, even in the smallest towns – especially in the smallest towns - are something else. No-nonsense buildings, hard grey and off-red stone, and well-made; slate roofs, thick walls, all squared away with geometrical precision, taller, prouder and better made than the stone cottages in Snowdonia. In the parts of England I frequent, buildings made like this are either ancient rustic curiosities, great civic works or churches; not much middle ground. Here, they’re everything, with pleasing solidity, uniform professionalism and fortified dourness, and here, unlike the modern, flighty, plastic and basically ugly dwellings going up in immense numbers all over England, they’re still making them; some of the newer buildings we saw (easily distinguished by their lack of chimneys; the stoves they are a-changing) were the same style, if different in the details. Here, you get the feeling, a Scotsman’s house really is his castle. Building is no mere passion for venturing and scaffolding; no work of a free enthusiasm, it is a serious means for a serious object.

Two is the fussiness. Everywhere – again, especially in the small towns - safe, sensible warning signs sprout, and practically every warning is accompanied by a terse but detailed explanation as to why it exists. Just like the Wenlockhead lead museum attendants, who couldn’t point you up the hill without getting all up in your business; they want to know what you were doing, why, when, how, in order to tell you how you should instead be doing things down to the smallest detail. It’s a sort of micromanagement by proxy; where Ulster has flags of the Union and the bloody hand flying zip-tie ragged from every streetlight, Lanarkshire has “advised speed limit” signs telling you Twenty’s Plenty. There’s a common-sense smugness there, a superiority that belies a (probably-well founded) sense that people Don’t Know Better, and need to be told.

New Lanark is a town built on both of these principles.

Richard Arkwright, (in)famous pioneer of factory systems and industrial cotton-spinning, in partnership with the Scots banker David Dale, built the place in the late 18th century with the dream of it becoming “the Manchester of Scotland”. The Clyde was an ideal spot for water power, so ideal that this rocky valley in the armpit of nowhere was worth turning into the biggest cotton-spinning plant in the world. Water power and an abundance of cheap child labour, later to be supplemented by orphanages. (You think I’m joking, don’t you.) So they built massive factories here, in that dour, sensible grey stone style aimed to withstand the test of ages. They have done, and remain almost unchanged from two centuries ago; serious, industrial architecture, from a time when that didn’t automatically mean “ugly.”

(It must be stressed that this 18th-century industrial estate is New Lanark. Old Lanark is a perfectly normal [ie, well-built and fussy, by laid-back, slowly disintegrating southern English standards] town up the hill, with a big, imaginative statue of William Wallace and a great Indian restaurant. The town’s symbol is, for whatever reason, a double-headed eagle; I don’t know if its allegiance is to Byzantium, the Austrian Empire or the Imperium of Man, but it was cool to see.)

That Robert Owen
Later, it was acquired by the industrialist, philanthropist and proto-socialist Robert Owen. He introduced various forward-thinking, generally-seen-as-insane principles like providing plentiful good quality housing (for 1820, that is; people still outnumbered rooms four to one), schooling and healthcare to his workforce, and a programme of relentless Improvement similar to that seen in the minds of the Wenlockhead librarians, where a schoolhouse purpose-built at great expense was used round the clock with a broad and interesting curriculum. The heritage centre gushes louder about him than the Clyde gushes outside, never really addressing the wisdom of raising and educating children to express themselves and know about the world, followed immediately by locking them in factories surrounded by murderous, deafening machines to work until they died. Nor does it paint the wage-slave locking-in tactic of paying workers in company store tokens as anything but a good thing (play me some Sixteen Tons.) But I suppose if he hadn’t turned a tidy profit along with the rigorously controlled Good Works, nobody would have taken him seriously, and nobody else in the world would have bothered to raise standards for their workers. Owen’s philosophy seemed to be that properly-educated, decently-fed, well-housed workers would be more efficient and obedient. It was his calling to raise these people from ignorance and suffering, by indoctrinating them in his way; they didn’t know better.

Taken in the context of its age, New Lanark was the fluffiest, friendliest, most liveable-in industrial hellhole in the world. Still, the overall philosophy you can see is not of woolly, good-natured philanthropy but an immense Soviet-esque feeling of “this is what’s good for you” handed down from on high; Owen Knows Best. Mostly glossed over is the man’s insane intellectual hippie commune in Indiana in which he and a bunch of other progressive 19th century intellectuals attempted to construct Utopia and then were reminded - forcefully - that they had no practical skills; that got a small exhibit in the basement of his house.

Owen moved on in 1825, to bigger and less successful things. New Lanark carried on operating until 1968 before going bust and being abandoned, and was only recently restored by the charitable New Lanark Association.

We stayed there two nights, and moved on.

Next week: the Antonine Wall, the Falkirk Wheel, and on into the Highlands.

A Book of Books

By Philip Womack

When I left university, I started to keep a list of every book I read. I suppose that, now I no longer had to read books, I still wanted to prove to myself that I was expanding and growing. It quickly became an obsession. The list lived on my computer; during the closing pages of a novel I would experience a strange kind of pleasure at the thought that soon I could enter the book’s name into my document, where it would jostle with its fellows. For that is how books grow and live: they intermingle with the other things you’ve read, and spread and find points of contact. My computer, however, went the way of all pieces of technology, and imploded. So I bought a blank, lined, hard-backed book from the British museum with a picture of Antinous on the front (symbolising what, I am not sure, but I like it), and started to keep a reading journal. Now I have a book about books. It is a meta-book, a living, ever-increasing object. I read over it and annotate it from time to time.
I number the books carefully, write down the date I finished the last page, the title and the author, and whether I reviewed it for somebody or why I read it. If I have met the author I will try to insert an anecdote or two. I started the Reading Journal on the 6th October 2008, neatly, with Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad (a suitably numberful title to kick off), and now, on the 2nd August 2010, I have got to no. 203, with Kehua! by Fay Weldon. On these pages Tobias Wolff chats happily to Tarzan’s Cheetah, whilst E M Forster and Ferdinand Mount look gravely on, sharing a witticism. One begins to see strange connections between people: Chesterton and Chaucer, for instance, share a deep morality. There are coincidences, surface and deeper: I read Joe Dunthorne’s lovely first novel Submarine and followed it (unwittingly) with Something in the Sea, a much less lovely (indeed rather frightening) debut by Yves Bonavero. The Iliad (which I am constantly reading and re-reading: I put it down as a book if I’ve read one in Greek) sits next to Helen Dunmore’s Counting the Stars, a novel about the poet Catullus: next to it is James Scudamore’s Heliopolis (a big star) and then Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. I met the novelist and poet Adam Foulds at Adam O’Riordan’s house (both, I have just realised, named after the first man). The latter is a poet too: his pamphlet, Home, looks across at Fould’s novel about poets, The Quickening Maze. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is followed by Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; amazingly, the book I read next was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Sometimes a book will cast somebody in a new light: Sabatini’s Scaramouche comes before Rimbaud by Edmund White: what more flamboyant, Scaramouche-esque person could there be than the young French poet? On every page, in my faltering handwriting, in different inks, sometimes rushed, sometimes neat, these entries collide. 
It is more than whimsy: as a reviewer it is a useful tool, a way of writing out something that has been scratching in my mind before I settle down to the actual business of the piece. I can flick back to remind myself of what I thought; revise my opinions (as with The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell: ‘hard to tell whether it’s bilge or brilliant or both’, I wrote initially. Half a year later I inscribed ‘pretty sure it’s bilge’). 
I have so many unread books, sent to me solicited, unsolicited, review copies, books by friends, books bought; they sit in a tottering pile by my sitting room door, calling to me. Making the transition to a ‘read’ book is something of a rite: a book is placed in its alphabetical position, catalogued, loved. Sometimes I rearrange the unread books; often I feel uneasy about whether I will ever manage to read them all, for the pile never shrinks. But one day, perhaps, they will all have their entries in my blue Reading Journal.
One day I wonder whether I might actually publish it as a book, interweaving it perhaps with memoir. For the moment, it is the second thing I would save from a burning house.

Philip Womack is the author of The Other Book and The Liberators.  His book reviews appear regularly in The Telegraph and The Literary Review.

A Seed of Hope

Natalie Crawford reviews A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

Afghanistan, as we know, is a complicated mess. But for many, myself included, this is often the beginning and end of our education. If it were not for the images seen on our evening news and the opinions of those indirectly connected to the conflict ‘over there’, we may not have this sensationalist view of a ‘backwards’ country with seriously outdated moral codes and ethics. Although A Thousand Splendid Suns does nothing to allay these ideas, it goes a hell of a long way to provide an education that I believe is seriously lacking.

I am quite happy to admit my ignorance to the situations suffered by so many. I knew nothing of the whys and wherefores of the current climate our own soldiers are thrown into. That is, until earlier this year. I was given a copy of The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad which I devoured almost instantly. This then led me to Hosseini’s inaugural work The Kite Runner. Both books, in particular the latter, had me desperate for more – desperate to understand to a greater level the plight of this formerly ‘westernised’ world. Part of it was obviously due to the thirst for knowledge, but I am ashamed to say that another part of me was eager to quench a thirst for the tragic.

This is something I have never quite understood. Human nature seems to dictate that many of us are addicts of ‘car-crash’ scenarios; a taste of blood and terror. I am very much one of these people, my ears prick up at the prospect of reported deaths and evil on the news. Perhaps it is because my sugar coated, candy floss wrapped world is so far removed from anything so awful. Perhaps it is because my imagination cannot even begin to construct some of the experiences that real people in real places can go through; cannot comprehend the extent of damage one can withstand and still not break. And I know I am not alone in this.

I believe this is one of the reasons I was so swept up in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Hosseini tells the tale of two women, Mariam and Laila. Although very different in perspective and upbringing, both women are cursed with tragedy and tarred with a similar fate. The matter-of-fact prose lulls the reader from one horrendous situation to another without so much as a pause for breath, yet you do not feel bombarded by it. At no point did my brain kick in to say, “Enough now. Enough.” Instead, it eagerly pored over the pages, almost relishing the terrible experiences these women faced.

Even though so much of the book deals with terror, violence, torture, humiliation alongside very emotional events such as suicide, miscarriage and exploding body parts, no part of the story feels unreal. None of it feels unbelievable or extreme. The interwoven back drop of Afghanistan’s modern history submerges you directly into a world that is very, very real, making this book one of the most terrifying works of modern ‘horror’. 

But what is truly amazing is Kahled Hosseini’s ability to teach about hope. This book is possibly one of the most heart wrenching novels I am ever going to read (I shed buckets!) but throughout it all, lying beneath almost unnoticed, behind every word, is a seed of hope. It is truly breathtaking. I still cannot work out exactly how he has managed this incredible feat considering the subject matter, but it is there. The sense of love and commitment, and that cooling breeze of hope and beauty eventually shines through so strong, that by the final page you are almost ready to begin the torment again. 

This exceptional work is not only a lesson to all those budding authors in how to present complex emotions and situations, but also a lesson to us all about a country we seem to have misplaced. Hosseini does not bash you about the head with historical and cultural detail, but for me, that makes it all the more poignant. The detail is so subtle it is almost mundane. The plights of Mariam and Laila take centre stage, but when they are wrapped in a national sadness that cannot be broken, you begin to understand more of why our own country had to step in. It secretly provokes you into reaching your own conclusions on the conflict – my own edging towards a sense of failure and responsibility on the part of a certain ‘Western Alliance’. But, what would I know?

So now I feel really ashamed. How did I not know more about this ongoing madness before? With a sick fascination for the tragic and my own personal love of how the past has shaped our present, I simply cannot understand how I have such a gaping hole in my knowledge. But Hosseini’s novels have done much to shovel in the missing information. He has an extraordinary talent for gently taking you on a journey that does nothing to offend but honestly tells some of the potential horrors of Afghanistan. He has the ability to show us that despite all our best attempts, there is hope for human kind, hope for Afghanistan, hope for us all no matter how dark our days might get. But more than this, a hope that through his words this real and terrible life will not be confined to dusty tomes of unread history books, but be learnt from and allowed to breathe forever. 

Natalie Crawford is a former school teacher, now at work on a children's novel set during the English Civil War.  You can read more of her book and film reviews on her own blog, The Writer Side of Life

To Go To the Mo

By Andrew Gorton.

In April I started as a volunteer gallery steward at the ‘Mo’ museum. The ‘Mo’ is a recently opened museum in Sheringham, Norfolk. (One of its exhibits, the J.C. Madge, was discussed in an earlier article.) Some of its collection used to be on display in a row of cottages set back behind the shops of the main street – the cottages were sold to part-fund the new museum, now in a purpose-built building on the promenade. Mo, short for “Morag”, was the daughter of a local man who was heavily involved with the town in the late 19th century, and used to live on the site where the museum now stands.
The star exhibits are unquestionably the boats. The town is unique in the world to posses 4 of its original lifeboats, 3 of which are housed in the Mo. The pulling and sailing lifeboat J.C. Madge was in service from 1904
The Madge was replaced in 1936 by the RNLB Foresters Centenary, and was Sheringham’s first motor lifeboat, powered by a 6-cylinder petrol engine. This boat served during World War II, and as this part of the coast saw a lot of air traffic, both Allied and German, the Centenary rescued more downed airmen than any other lifeboat in the country.
In 1961, the all-weather lifeboat Manchester Unity of Oddfellows took up the Centenary’s role. At 22 tons, it is by far the largest of the 3 lifeboats. A question I am regularly asked by visitors is how it was got into the building. They actually had to lower it in by crane before putting the roof on. There is a rather impressive video projection available showing the whole operation.
There are also 3 fishing boats built by the Emery family, who had a boatyard in Sheringham until 1981. The Emerys were famous for building their boats entirely by eye and without plans or drawings of any kind. Looking at these clinker built boats, you can really appreciate the skill and care that went into making them.
As a gallery steward, I have met a number of visitors, many of them who are or were locals, and I have learned a lot from their stories. There was the guy who went to school in Sheringham during the war and remembers the town being bombed. The town was one of the main routes to and from Germany ,  and enemy aircraft often ditched whatever loads they had left on their way back, hoping to hit the nearby army camp in Weybourne. This particular gentleman told me that the school parcelled out each class to separate buildings around Sheringham, in case the worse happened. Talk about not keeping all your eggs in one basket! Another gent in his 60s attended Sunday school in Sheringham as a boy, and recalls once helping 40 other people to launch the Centenary when the maroons went up. It must have been a pretty good excuse to skip school!
As well as recovering aircrew and civilians, and sadly the occasional body, the crew of the Centenary also salvaged whatever they could of the aircraft. One visitor told me he had parts of a fuel tank of a German aircraft that came down in the sea. His father had somehow managed to obtain them on the sly. According to this guy, it was from this particular aeroplane that the British got the secret for self-sealing fuel-tanks, a much prized piece of technology then.
I remember another visitor quite clearly. He had served on the Oddfellows lifeboat when it was operational, and was showing a friend around. Obviously this guy’s knowledge was impressive, and both his friend and I were duly impressed. As is often the way, this ex-lifeboatman was very modest, and even seemed uncomfortable with his friend’s genuine admiration.
All in all, it’s been a fascinating experience, and, if you’re interested, there may be more of the same in due course.

Andrew Gorton is an OU student, London born but now living on the North Norfolk Coast. 
The Mo's website is

What're you doin' doon there on the floo-er, Ross?

Bored by the Beeb? Run out of HBO boxed-sets?  The Bee continues its quest for simpler telly from a bygone age.  This week, Philip Reeve has been watching: POLDARK!

Ah, Sunday evenings in the 1970s; Cliff Michelmore's Holiday programme, and then, if you were lucky, Poldark.  This was the first bit of grown-up telly I remember watching, and terribly grown up it seemed too, with characters dying and going bankrupt and lots of love and stuff.  But it was set in my then-favourite period (late 18th/early 19th century - I was an odd child) and so the outfits and atmosphere carried me through all the bits I didn't really understand.  Better still, it was set in Cornwall, so for fifty minutes a week I'd be whisked away from dismal old Brighton to storm-wracked smugglers' coves and wild granite cliff tops.

Anyway, so much for nostalgia: how would Poldark stand up when viewed again in the 21st century, thanks to the miracle of DVDs?

 Robin Ellis, Angharad Rees, and Cornwall
Surprisingly well, as it turns out.  Based on Winston Graham's series of novels (which are also pretty good) it's basically a grand historical soap-opera: a kind of period-costume Dallas with tin mines instead of oil wells.  Robin Ellis plays Ross Poldark, a minor Cornish landowner returning to his run-down ancestral farm after fighting in the American War of Independence.  He's a fine hero; mercurial, stubborn, sometimes rash, sometimes plain wrong, one of the gentry but a man of the people too, ruthless in his business dealings, but often risking all to save local smugglers and poachers from transportation or the gallows. He is, in fact, an 18th century man with a whiff of the 1970s about him (and he sports a short, brown leather riding coat which I'm sure is historically accurate, but wouldn't have looked out of place on the King's Road).

Elizabeth Poldark
Anyway, he comes home to find that all is not well with the Poldark lands.  His house is a tumbledown wreck inhabited by two filthy, drunk and very funny servants, Judd and Prudy, while his fiance, Elizabeth (Jill Townsend), has given up waiting for him and married his drippy cousin Francis.  His continuing passion for her, and his attempts to win her back, drive much of the first series, although they're slightly undermined by the fact that she looks like a cross between a young Margaret Thatcher and one of those plastic dollies with the crocheted skirts which my house-proud aunties hid their toilet-rolls under.

Then one day, as you do, he saves an androgynous ginger waif from being beaten to death for pasty-theft at a local fishmarket.  She turns out to be Demelza, played by lovely, lovely Angharad Rees, who becomes his housekeeper, lover and eventually his wife, her humble background and peculiar 'Cornish' vowel-sounds startling the local gentry and driving a series of BBC regional accent coaches to drink, madness and suicide*.  Bickering, doubting each other, falling in and out of love, Ross and Demelza are still one of the most memorable and oddly convincing couples I've ever seen on TV.

Oh, I doan' know, Ross, what
sorta accent be this, then?
Indeed, 'oddly convincing' pretty much sums up Poldark.  It should be pure periwig-cheese, but it works, dammit.  Made in the days before TV producers liked to 'film-look' everything and the pictures became more important than the words, it makes little attempt at realism.  The outdoor scenes are filmed on fine Cornish locations, but as soon as the characters step indoors we are in overlit studio sets that owe more to theatre than the movies.  And do you know what?  It doesn't matter at all.  Because the actors are good, and the story unfolds in long scenes; there is time for whole conversations, and the programme-makers assume a certain amount of patience and intelligence on the part of the audience - an assumption which seems rare these days outside of HBO.

The stories are gripping, involving Ross in smuggling, duels, law-suits, bitter rivalries. even raids on revolutionary France.  It also treats business as something important and worth telling stories about.  Robin Ellis is terrific, and I assume the only reason he's not better known is that he was so memorable in Poldark that he got hopelessly typecast.  Angharad Rees is every bit as good.  Ralph Bates, who arrives in the second series as the scheming George Warleggan, is a simply magnificent villain.  Even Christopher Biggins is a revelation, playing a particularly repellant vicar.

Only two things disappointed me.  Firstly, the DVDs which are currently available have been re-edited (perhaps for US TV?) so that on each disc three or four fifty minute episodes have been run together into one movie of unwieldy length; you have to edit them into watchable chunks yourself, which involves much mucking about in the menu, and I missed the cliff-hanger endings and that cut to sea bursting on Cornish rocks while the credits roll.

Secondly, I spent the whole time waiting for Demelza (she of the uncertain West Country accent) to say, "What're you doin' doon there on the floo-er, Ross?"  This became a sort of catch-phrase in my family when Poldark was first on, but either it's been edited out or, more likely, it was just something we made up while doing Angharad Rees impressions, because she never actually says it.  Ah, how our fickle memories play us false...

*This is not true.

Secret Weapons Over Normandy

By Bill Havercroft

Discovering a hidden gem is one of life's great pleasures. So it was several years ago now, when my father decided to purchase and try out a couple of these newfangled video games for himself. He selected Secret Weapons over Normandy, a World War II flying game on the Playstation 2. This was released with almost zero hype or publicity in 2003, and despite receiving favourable reviews, has remained an obscure title. He and I both gave the game a quick whirl, before deciding neither of us could really be bothered to play it; for him, his lack of console experience meant the controls were too daunting, while I probably had enough other games to keep me occupied at the time.

Then one boring summer a couple of years later, I decided to give it another try. The game sucked me in almost immediately. Having known little about WWII aviation beyond the ubiquitous Spitfire before playing the game, by the time I was done with it, my knowledge of the aircraft and air battles involved in that most interesting of wars had increased hugely. I'd found a new interest, which has lasted to this day. Prompted by a recent visit to the RAF Museum, I decided to play through the game once more. Despite now being seven years old (video games tend not to age well) it's just as good as I remember.

So, the premise of SWoN is simple: fly a variety of aircraft through a number of missions based on key events in the Second World War. You play James Chase, an American pilot who volunteers with the RAF in 1940, and is placed in a crack SOE-endorsed squadron named the Battlehawks. Improbably, Chase gets loaned and transferred all over the shop during the war, allowing him to take part in such varied theatres as the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the North African campaign, the Battle of Midway, Stalingrad, disrupting the Germans' V-weapons program at Peenemunde, and of course D-Day. The plot is rather contrived in this respect, but it holds together surprisingly well. It's certainly preferable to the alternative, just being dumped into each mission with no background - "hey, you're a random pilot fighting the Battle of Midway now, enjoy!"

Along with narrated cutscenes describing the real-life circumstances, and read-aloud excerpts from Chase's diary before each mission, there's an awful lot of radio exposition and guidance from Chase's colleagues during them. The voice acting is mostly exemplary, important since none of the characters are ever really seen; there are black and white still photographs displayed during the expository cutscenes which purport to show the main players (I can't tell whether they're actual archive photos from the war, or just mocked up), but you really only know each character by their voice. In addition you get snippets of radio chatter from your German/Japanese enemies during missions; refreshingly, these are spoken in their respective native tongues (all the comms are subtitled and logged in case you're too busy shooting stuff to hear what you're supposed to be doing next) rather than in dodgily accented English. It all adds to the feel.

Of course, the gameplay is what really matters, and SWoN's is top-notch. Unlike most flight "simulation" games, which focus on absolute realism to cater to huge anoraks (no offence to any huge anoraks reading this), SWoN takes liberties and tailors the flying so that it's actually fun and easy to pick up. All of the planes available to fly are whizzy fighters or fighter bombers, all equipped with machine guns and some kind of secondary weapon: bombs, torpedoes, cannons etc. The gameplay and mission objectives generally focus on destroying a variety of enemy aircraft and ground- or sea-based targets. As with the plot, realism takes something of a backseat here. So while real-world fighters carried enough machine gun ammo to fire continuously for maybe fifteen seconds, you get enough rounds here to keep spraying for several minutes. Even the smaller of the two wing-mounted cannon models can sink a battleship in about fifteen shots, and your little Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber can somehow haul around twelve big torps at once. And only one is needed to sink any ship or U-boat. Such deviations are more than worthwhile however, since single-handedly sinking an entire german fleet, downing a squadron of heavy bombers, or exploding a whole battalion of Panzers with rockets is massively enjoyable stuff.

On the other hand, the dogfighting is the weakest component of the action. While the AI planes are capable of proper aerobatics, ducking and weaving and rolling to avoid your hail of gunfire, you are restricted to such breathtaking manoeuvres as 'turning' and 'adjusting throttle'. It's mainly down to the simplified controls. By default, pushing left and right on the controller's left-hand analogue stick turns the plane in a combination yaw-roll manoeuvre. This is how planes turn in the real world, but of course real pilots have separate controls for the yaw and roll. This more complicated scheme is available in the game, with yaw and roll on the left and right sticks respectively, and it theoretically allows for barrel rolls and other fancy stunts. But unless you're an actual pilot, it's just too difficult to get to grips with. What this means is that the dogfights are less about outsmarting and outmanouvring your opponent, and more about chasing him round the screen until he sits still for long enough to receive some of your bullets. It's still satisfying when you manage to perfectly lead a fighter across the sky and watch it fall to earth in flames (the game helpfully brings up a little red reticle when you're in range showing you where to aim to actually hit the baddie), and I can't really see how they could have improved the dogfighting aspect with the controls available, but it's still a little disappointing.

There are a few other missions where you get to jump out of your plane for a bit and man a turret; usually ack-acks, or on a couple of occasions in the infamous Sperry ball turret of a B-17 bomber. The game doesn't really depict the utter affront to human dignity that the ball turret represents, but no matter.

Besides the aforementioned simplified flight controls and little red leading reticle, the game helps you out in several other ways. You get a radar in the corner of the screen showing the top-down locations of friends and foes, and enemies and other important objects can be highlighted, clearly showing their position, distance and damage meter. There are also various different camera viewpoints available, aiding you with things like bomb targeting. Though it takes a little while to get used to using all this tech, each one turns out to be extremely useful. For example the highlight system makes it so that you're never unsure as to where you should be going or what you're supposed to be filling with holes next, a common source of frustration in video games.

The aircraft featured certainly deserve a mention. The game's title points to the fact that there's a slight focus on the oddball experimental machines developed by both sides during this period of rapid war-driven research and development. As you progress through the game, you get to fly many of the famous faces: the Hawker Hurricane, Supermarine Spitfire, Messerschmitt Bf 109 (various Axis planes are fortuitously acquired during the campaign), Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the de Havilland Mosquito among them. But later on (usually as a reward for completing all bonus objectives in a mission), you get access to such oddities as the Curtiss-Wright XP-55, the Dornier Do 335 , and the brilliant Chance Vought "Flying Pancake" [link:]. In addition, the coming of the jet age is depicted towards the end of the game, with the appearance of the Messerschmitt Me 262, the world's first jet fighter. These speedy devils terrorise you for a couple of missions before you get your hands on one yourself, and it becomes your best friend for the remainder of the missions.

Secret Weapons over Normandy is just a fantastic, hugely entertaining game. It's clear that a lot of time, effort and research has gone into making it as fun and polished as possible, right down to the wonderfully stirring orchestral soundtrack and the included DVD-style "special features" movies, which variously give some insight into the making of the game, and visit some of the featured aircraft in real life.

Video games are usually hard to love completely. Even if overall a game is brilliant, since you're an active participant, any little niggles in any aspect tend to come back to annoy you again and again as you play, dampening the fun. SWoN achieves something very rare in that it's brilliant overall, and the little niggles are almost entirely absent. It's dangerously close to perfection.

Secret Weapons over Normandy was released for the Playstation 2, Xbox and PC. It's out of production now, but a cursory internet search reveals it can be picked up second hand for a few quid. I highly recommend doing so.

Literary Soap-Box

By Natalie Crawford

I’m not sure what the editors at Hodder Children’s Books are thinking. Despite still being one of the top selling children’s authors 42 years after she pulled up a comfy chair in the sky, Enid Blyton’s books are due for a contemporary revamp. Shiny new covers and a re-edit of some of Blyton’s language is apparently the way to get young readers chomping at the bit. I can appreciate that when children’s literature is saturated with vampiric tales and otherworldly delights, situations involving na├»ve and, dare I say, childish, whimsical japes adventures may not automatically be first choice (Golly Gosh!). The more time I spend in the children’s section of Waterstones, the more I believe that Hodder’s marketing department might have got it wrong.

I am not a Blyton purist; far from it. As a child, having these books forced upon me by a Great-Aunt simply made me cringe. I was too busy devouring works by Dick King-Smith and Roald Dahl, books with magical intrigue and imagination. But that is not to say I don’t think they have their place. Blyton’s books are a cornerstone of classic children’s literature and should be treated as such, with some form of reverence and respect – not tarted up to look Americanised and fake. 

I don’t like the idea that her words are going to be changed to make the pages more ‘accessible’ to children. This shows a huge underestimation of their target market. Through reading, children begin to learn what it is to put themselves in another’s shoes; to imagine different times and places; to discover different cultures and understandings of the world. Increasingly, their view of the world in many matters is becoming quite narrow and only ever contemporary; ideals of a simpler, family orientated life with lasting friendships and ‘lashings of pop’ are being replaced with bloody battle games and face-to-screen socialising. If we remove these literary snap shots of the past and make everything ‘modern’, what lesson will children learn?

And where will it end? Will publishers suddenly decide that Kenneth Grahame’s immortal Wind in the Willows is too ‘wordy’ and therefore too difficult for these tiny precious minds to cope with? Suddenly, his delicate and poetic descriptions will be hacked into pieces until Ratty’s river is simply just nice. Or maybe Political Correctness will over turn Roald Dahl’s depiction of Miss Trunchbull and her rather violent teaching methods (I suspect there may also be a rewrite within this rewrite to establish clearer guidelines for those wishing to adopt magical orphans). My favourite will come on the modernising of Jane Austin’s words with Mr Darcy declaring Miss Eliza Bennett as, “Well fit.” A sad day for her ‘fine eyes’.

Perhaps they plan to relocate all stories into a modern day, familiar context. Sally Gardner’s Silver Blade will no longer tell a forgotten tale of the French Revolution but be depicted somewhere around a park bench in Manchester – plenty of swashbuckling action there.

I know the Blyton re-edit will not be taken to such an extreme; the Famous Five’s caravan holiday will not be altered to a self catering apartment on the Costa Del Sol – I hope. I appreciate that some of the ‘lingo’ is outdated, but surely that is part of the charm? No, altering the language is not the answer to making even more money from these books. Neither are the frankly atrocious covers that the art department have ‘developed’. The market has been missed.

Famous Five in particular, currently appear to be aimed at boys (from the covers) aged 7 to 9. Wrong, wrong, wrong. No boy is ever going to pick this book up. And 7 year olds? Not interested – give them pirates and animals and fairies. Aim a little higher. The fact that Blyton’s works have slipped into the ‘classic’ genre means the audience has changed. Maybe in the fifties and sixties junior children picked up these books – of course they did, television was not child friendly and the computer non existent. Now though, they need to be aimed at girls no lower than the age of nine or ten. Girls that devour anything you put in front of them; Girls who are broadening their horizons and able to understand how and why these books are different to contemporary blockbuster novels; Girls that have patience and love series books; Girls that are beginning to appreciate the ‘classic genre’ and glimpses into our own past. This market is ridiculously huge. But the reinvention of the Famous Five threatens to miss this revenue-rich mass. 

Of course, I am not an editor, a publisher or marketeer. I am simply a lowly, opinionated school teacher with a slight obsession with language, literature and all things children’s fiction. I can’t possibly begin to know what is best for Blyton’s books, particularly when the market is as competitive as it currently is. What I do know though is that Enid Blyton is a national treasure and her books a British institution. If the recipe for her success has been correct for all this time, why now take something away? 

And maybe Hodder could try a children’s focus group next time?

Natalie Crawford is currently writing a children's novel set in the English Civil War.  You can read more of her book and film reviews on her own blog, The Writer Side of Life