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Thursday 27 May 2021

C. S. Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet

C. S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet (3*)

Between the ages of eleven and fifteen, I read through most of the science fiction section in the local public library. It therefore puzzled me on reading The Chrysalids last month that I couldn’t remember it. Had I completely forgotten or is it one I missed? If I were to re-read something I know I did read at that age, then would I be reassured that my memory still works?

I know I read C. S. Lewis’s space trilogy. I have always been prepared for the still awaited quiz question – What are the titles? Answer: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and Return to the Silent Planet. WRONG! The third one was That Hideous Strength. Well, that is not how I remember it.

I went to Faded Page and downloaded Out of the Silent Planet for Kindle. I also managed to find an image of the cover I think our library had.  

As I remembered, it is about a man called Ransom (my mother had a friend with the same surname) who is kidnapped and taken by two crooks to Mars (known as Malacandra) where he escapes and has various adventures. In particular, I was remember being struck by how he first misinterprets the appearance of an alien, and, later, how unusual human beings look when he first encounters them again.
…  it held the shell to its own middle and seemed to be pouring something… . Ransom thought with disgust that it was urinating into the shell. Then he realised that the protuberances on the creature’s belly were not genital organs at all; it was wearing … pouch-like objects, and it was adding a few drops of liquid from one of these to the water in the shell.
Almost exactly as I recall. Strange what you remember. Much later Ransom sees:
…  two creatures which he did not recognize. … They were much shorter than any animal he had yet seen on Malacandra, … bipeds, though the lower limbs were so thick and sausage-like that he hesitated to call them legs. The bodies were a little narrower at the top than at the bottom so as to be very slightly pear-shaped, and the heads were … almost square. They stumped along on heavy-looking feet which they seemed to press into the ground with unnecessary violence. And now their faces were becoming visible as masses of variegated colour fringed in some bristly, dark substance. Suddenly, with an indescribable change of feeling, he realized he was looking at men.
You cannot say C. S. Lewis lacked imagination.

Other aspects came back as I read: the spherical space ship they travel in, that Malacandrans, like the plants and the mountains, tend to be tall and thin because of the lower gravity, that there is breathable air deep down in the canals but not on the higher plains, and that Ransom learns to speak Malacandran because he is a professor of language. Even after more than fifty years, I knew I had read it before. It reassures me that I cannot previously have read ‘The Chrysalids’.

What I did not recall is the moralistic and religious allegory. As a young teenager, I probably didn’t get it. Every planet is ruled an Oyarsa, a kind of space angel, which is ruled by an even higher being called Maledil. They all communicate with each other. However, the Oyarsa ruler of Thulcandra (the Earth) became silent aeons ago (the Silent Planet) and the planet has become a mystery to the others. The Malacandran Oyarsa is astonished to hear what Ransom  “... has to tell them about human history – of war, of slavery and prostitution.”
‘It is because they have no Oyarsa,’ said one of the pupils.
‘It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself’ said Augray.
‘They cannot help it … there must be rule, but how can creatures rule themselves?

The villains who kidnap Ransom are of low moral fibre: one is after the gold that lies in abundance all over Malacandra and the other is a rogue scientist seeking to ensure the long term survival and dominance of the human race without any regard for others. They regard the three species of Malacadrans as primitives, whereas Ransom values their civilisation and appreciates their different but equal talents and qualities. The author being C. S. Lewis, theologian, Fellow at Oxford and Professor at Cambridge, these ideas all have academic and theological precedents which are a mystery to me. Out of the Silent University. 

It sounds like Thought for the Day on the BBC, but it’s an entertaining story. It does not entice me to re-read the other two, though.  

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Thursday 20 May 2021

Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca

Daphne du Maurier 
Rebecca (5*)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

One of the best remembered and most envied openings of any English novel. Its effect seems to lie in the exotic ‘Manderley’, the question of why only in a dream, and the word ‘again’.

It was the Guardian writer, John Crace, who prompted me to read it. He regularly returns to it as if in need of emotional sustenance. He first read it during a wet week in a holiday cottage when little else of promise was available, and was hooked. Ever since, he has considered it the most underrated classic of the twentieth century.

Having read Jamaica Inn some years ago in similar circumstances and thought it all right, and being in need of emotional sustenance myself after some of the things I’ve been reading lately, I thought I would give Rebecca a try. There it was, waiting in one of our bookcases with my wife’s maiden name inside the front cover.

Until the author twists the screw in Chapter 13 it is faintly irritating. The opening leads to a dream about a beautiful house, Manderley, decayed and deserted, “with no whisper of the past about its staring walls.” (p7).  It drags on through the whole of the first chapter, all in the mind of the narrator who then flashbacks into an extremely wet and timid twenty-one year old girl with an over-active imagination. She is employed as a ladies companion by Mrs. Van Hopper, a rich, snobbish and socially predatory American woman. They are in a hotel in Monte Carlo where her employer latches on to an emotionally dead, upper class English widower, the owner of Manderley. The employer then falls ill and the widower writes the girl a note to apologise for his rudeness.

…my name was on the envelope, and spelt correctly, an unusual thing.
‘You have a very lovely and unusual name’ he tells her. (p23 and 27)
We never know what it is. Maybe it was something like Persephone or Despoina whose name could not be revealed. Could it be that Daphne du Maurier didn’t know how to spell it, either? The only thing we can say with certainty is that it is not Rebecca.

They begin to take their meals together, and, despite being twice her age, he spends most of his time driving her around in his car, sightseeing, until Mrs Van Hopper recovers and decides to dash off to New York. The girl contrives a quick meeting with the widower to say goodbye. He starts filing his nails.
‘So, Mrs Van Hopper has had enough of Monte Carlo … and now she wants to go home. So do I. She to New York and me to Manderley. Which would you prefer? You can take your choice.’

‘Don’t make a joke about it … I had better … say good-bye now.’

‘If you think I’m one of those people who try to be funny at breakfast you’re wrong … Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come back to Manderley with me.’

‘Do you mean you want a secretary or something?’

‘No, I’m asking you to marry me, you little fool.’ (p56)

One wonders to how many impressionable teenagers it gave the idea that this is how grown up men and women behave, the man making all the choices and the woman waiting in trepidation. It couldn’t be any more unlike that in our house.

Perhaps I am not giving due credence to the mechanisms of snobbery, prejudice, wealth and class in the nineteen-thirties when it was written. To today’s sensibilities, it reads like psychological abuse, and it continues when they return to Manderley. He goes about his business leaving her rattling around at a loose end in an enormous house. All the time she senses the spirit of the dead Rebecca, the beautiful and accomplished first wife. She feels an imposter, taking Rebecca’s place, using the things she chose, acting out her routines, and can never measure up. She is afraid of the servants, especially the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers. She imagines them denigrating her frugal underwear, and dreams up whole scenes of dialogue in which the neighbours laugh and talk about her:

… they wanted to compare me to Rebecca … they thought me rude and ungracious … more to criticize, more to discuss . They could say I was ill-bred. ‘I’m not surprised,’ they would say; ‘after all, who was she?’ And then a laugh and a shrug of the shoulder. ‘My dear, don’t you know? He picked her up in Monte Carlo or somewhere; she hadn’t a penny. She was a companion to some old woman.’ More laughter, more lifting of eyebrows. (p133)

But this is not a Mills and Boon romance. Once we get to Chapters 13 and 14 where she goes noseying around Rebecca’s boat house and closed up bedroom, and Mrs. Danvers begins to reveal her true nature, nothing is quite what it seems. I will say no more.

I don’t know about emotional sustenance, but if you get that far, I wouldn’t plan on doing anything else until you’ve finished. You could get a money-back guarantee that you won’t be able to put it down. There is nothing particularly nasty or unpleasant, but it might be sensible to have a heart defibrillator handy.   

Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Saturday 8 May 2021

Short Shorts

In 1958, The Royal Teens had a hit in America with Short Shorts (in the U.K. we might be more familiar with the Freddie and the Dreamers version). The words repeat three times [YouTube link]:

Who wears short shorts?
We wear short shorts
They’re such short shorts
We like short shorts
Who wears short shorts?
We wear short shorts

Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Yip Harburg must have wondered why they needed to try so hard. But some people are not as daft as they would have you believe. The Royal Teens’ pianist later founded The Four Seasons and wrote many of their songs, and another member of the band founded Blood Sweat & Tears.

It seems there were times when lots of us wore short shorts, such as AC/DC guitarist Angus Young and Everton footballer Gary Lineker.

So why do I feel the need to curl up and hide under the bedclothes at the sight my shorts in the French High Cantal in 1978? 

I get a cringe attack just from the rest of the outfit alone.  

And if that’s embarrassing, take a look at this, not a pair of shorts in sight.

 Dare I scan in any more old colour slides?

Saturday 1 May 2021

New Month Old Post: Bonking

(First posted 10th May, 2017)

Definition of bonking

I used to have a book by a pair of American educationalists called Curtis Jay Bonk and Kira S. King. Students used to call it the bonking book. The surnames of the two authors were juxtaposed on the spine in such a way as to make it look as if it was a book about bonking: “a bonking good read” perhaps.

The cover shows the first author’s name in full, but in the rest of the book and on his web site he goes by the shorter Curt Bonk. Does he know how that sounds to English ears? Perhaps he does. It might be his come on line.

Bonk and King: Electronic Collaborators

I’m not sure when I first encountered the word “bonk”. It wasn’t at school in Yorkshire. Bonk would then have meant hitting someone on the top of the head, or perhaps the percussive knock made by a large piece of wood. Runners and cyclists also now use it to mean running out of energy. I don’t think it emerged in the sexual sense until the nineteen-seventies. I can imagine Jo Kendall’s elegant but naughty voice saying it in “I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again”, but perhaps she never actually did. It would have amused me if she had.

The alternatives would have been completely unacceptable on broadcast media before the -seventies, despite the efforts of Brendan Behan and Kenneth Tynan who came out with the f-word on live television in the -fifties and -sixties, or even the music hall comedian Hector Thaxter who is said to have got away with “arse” on the radio in 1936.

Most of us don’t seem to notice swearing now. It was better when it was the exception rather than the rule. It was kinder when the worst we heard was “naff off” and “bonk”.