Thursday, 15 December 2011

December 2011

Blog 27
James Watson: A Writer’s Notebook

Ned Baslow’s Letter to Harold Godwinson has caused a stir in the office at Watsonworks as readers will find in our CORRESPONDENCE section. His comparing the Normans to the Tories has not gone down well at the Conservative Party HQ in Tunbridge Wells. We expect a similar flurry of protest, at least among the Greeks, following Ned’s Letter to Homer which is included here uncensored.

Also in this December 2011 edition, the Literary Encounters series, which has varyingly touched down in Medieval Florence, contemporary Kyiv, post-Soviet Prague, the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, the streets of Guernica bombed by German Heinkels and the bull ring of ancient Crete, visits the whispering forests of East Timor.

* Encounters 7: Mother Forest meets Brother Business
*Notes in Passing: Invasion of the Nordics
*Poems of Place: Jarrow Visited

Mother Forest meets Brother Business

From Justice of the Dagger (Collins Cascades) in which the forest people of East Timor are presented with a business proposition.

At the village of Muyu Father a man called Marquez, escorted by two soldiers, came from the timber company. He held up sheets of paper to Muyu Father. ‘It is all agreed with your people. This is a signed document.’
Muyu Father took the paper, held it at arm’s length as if it were a poisonous insect. Marquez turned it round. ‘You’ve got it upside down, stupid.’ He knew a little of the language of the forest people. ‘It is an Order in Council. It requires you to vacate your village.’
‘Move. Remove yourselves. Within seven days – you understand?’
‘How is this? Our people have lived here since Great Island rose from the sea.’
‘Not any longer,’ snapped. Marquez. ‘In any case, your people have no claim to the land. And it is not true you have occupied this village for a long time.
‘In fact you people are wanderers, you build a village and then when it gets stiff with shit, you move on, leaving a mass of litter in the forest.’
Muyu Father retorted, ‘All the forest is the Mother’s gift to us, so long as we cherish it. We move our villages to let the leaves grow once more. Mother Forest gathers back what belongs to it. Always.’
Marquez was not happy to be dealing with a tribesman who was also a philosopher. ‘The forest belongs to the government, Chief, and the government decides what to do with the forest.’
Lyana heard these words in torment. Hers was not the right to speak, but nothing could suppress her thoughts: it is you who have no rights. This island is not yours. You stole it from us, with your guns and your aeroplanes. It will never be yours even though you fill the valleys and the mountains with your battalions, even though you kill every one of us as you killed by family and all my clan.

Muyu Father rarely showed anger. Sometimes by his calmness he made Lyana angry. ‘And the forest, what has the forest decided?’
Marquez paused. ‘You talk as if the forest had a mind of its own.’
‘It has a mind. It has a soul. If you listen, you hear the heartbeat of the forest.’
‘As far as I’m concerned, friend, this forest is a goddam nuisance. It’s full of flies and lizards and snakes – and people like you who get in the way of progress.

‘When I look at this forest, Chief, I see timber. I see sawmills. And I see things being made for the good of humanity. Timber for homes, timber for furniture, timber for building boats.’
‘Oh yes,’ Muyu Father replied. ‘Some trees must fall. Some must be used, yes. We agree –’
‘Listen, I don’t want to be preached to on conservation by natives. This forest has fifty years of timbering in front of it. Anyway, the government has issued licences. And those licences mean one thing to your people – move on!’

All the villagers heard these words. As one voice, they asked, ‘Where do we move?’
‘Further into the forest. There are thousands of kilometres of it not yet turned to timber.’
Marquez hated the forest and thus he did not begin to understand it. Muyu Father said, ‘Sir, the forest is not like a long road. Everywhere is its centre, like the circles of the moon.’
Marquez was hot. The sweat made his feet squelch in his boots. His shirt was dripping into his trousers and his trousers stuck to his legs as if his body fluids had turned to glue. ‘The government knows what is best for you and your people, my friend.’

‘How can it know, when it is so distant, and when it does not listen?’
‘It’s you who should be doing the listening, Chief. Then you’ll see sense. You’ll go to the special villages built for you; send your children to school to be educated. To be frank, you people need civilizing. This is the twenty-first century –’
‘And your people, sir,’ interrupted Muyu Father, ‘’you talk with guns. Yours is the justice of the dagger. You have brought massacre. Our people lie dead in the forest –’
‘Because your people rose up against the government,’ stormed back Marquez. ‘Attacked the camps of the soldiers. And because you listened to the Resistance who would stir you up in hatred against the government.’
‘We do not listen to the Resistance,’ returned Muyu Father.
‘That is what you say. Soldiers who stray in the bush, they die. Not because of the snakes, but because your people obey the rebels, do their dirty work while they vanish in the forest to start new troubles elsewhere.’

‘We do not listen to the Resistance,’ repeated Muyu Father, glancing at his son. Muyu nodded, though reluctantly; and his gaze met Lyana’s: her elder brother had joined the resistance movement. The soldiers of the government caught him. Tortured him. Gave him a ride in a helicopter; and over the sea, invited him to ‘take a walk’; as the soldiers put it, mundi laut – gone for a swim.

Marquez knew he was wasting his time and his breath. ‘No more arguments, Chief, the earth movers, the Yellow Giants as you people call them, come in seven days time, one hour after dawn. Take all your property with you.’
‘Property?’ The word has no parallels in any of the many tongues of the forest people.
‘Belongings – your pigs, man, and your bows and arrows, though if I had my way I’d have them confiscated.’

There was a waiting as the two men glared at each other. And the forest whispered in a new wind from the south.
‘Come on,’ said Marquez as Muyu Father stood still as a hunter aiming at his prey. ‘Give me your word. I don’t want any trouble…What I want, Chief, is empty huts. You will not yet have made the acquaintance of Captain Selim, but I imagine his reputation will have already reached you. Do not cross him. Obey him to the letter – quit this place without fuss – and you will survive.
‘Seven days, Chief. Very generous in the circumstances. Then we shall be coming in for a dawn start.’ Marquez fixed his gaze upon Muyu, sensing the youth’s hidden rage. ‘And with machine-guns ready for any hot-heads who protest.’

For a second the eyes of Lyana held Marquez’s stare. She is a beauty, he thought, but that look alone could cut a man’s throat. He was tempted to warn Muyu Father – keep the girl out of sight of Selim. Instead, he wagged his finger and repeated, ‘Empty huts, Chief!’

* Justice of the Dagger was a Waterstone’s Book of the Month.

Previous encounters:
Boy Meets Girl (Besieged! The Coils of the Viper; Blog 21, 17 March 2011). Girl Meets Girl (Fair Game: The Steps of Odessa; Blog 22, 14 April). Dissident Girl Meets Dissident Poet (Ticket to Prague; Blog 23, 11 May). Enemies Meet Face to Face (The Freedom Tree; Blog 24, 6 September). Encounter with Bombs (The Freedom Tree; Blog 25, 13 October). Athlete Meets Bull (The Bull Leapers; Blog 26, 19 November).

NOTES IN PASSING: Invasion of the Nordics
If a stroll through any Waterstone’s is anything to go by, the world of crime thrillers is under Nordic occupation. There is no avoiding the sons and daughters of Larsson, even though several of them were making a name for themselves long before the phenomenon of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In fact Larsson was a relative newcomer, better known as a journalist, in this country a regular contributor to Searchlight magazine.

In fact, Larsson’s Millenium trilogy almost never got off the ground. An interview on radio with the publisher of the English edition of the first volume revealed an almost barren take-up. His response was to do something the rest of us writers ought to consider: he took to the highways and byways (mainly tubes and trains) and gave the books away to anyone willing to take them.

Helping hands
It wasn’t critics, massive advertising, celebrity recommendations or high-profile marketing that scored for Stieg Larsson but reader recommendations. It helped, of course, that the Larsson trilogy (part 2, The Girl Who Played With Fire, part 3, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest) proved compelling narratives, expertly orchestrated, and introducing a more than feisty heroine, Lisbeth Salander, in a story dealing with issues both specific to Sweden and of relevance and interest to contemporary readership everywhere.

It didn’t take long for publishers and bookshops to guide other Nordic writers, some already best sellers, into the wake of Larsson. For instance, the Vintage Books cover of Jo Nesbo’s The Snowman, gives prominence to a quote from the Independent – ‘The Next Stieg Larsson’ though it might be equally correct to refer to Larsson as the next Jo Nesbo.

The difference, in my view, is that Larsson is better: he writes more fluently, is less narrowly obsessed with manic serial murder of young women scenario, not to mention Larsson’s superiority in terms of narrative pace. Nesbo crawls along. When the reader’s attention is engaged, as in The Snowman, that’s fine and welcome, but when the distant past burgeons in on the story, weighing it with coil upon coil of detail and complication, as in his earlier book, The Redbreast, this reader had to ask, ‘Do I really care what happened next?’

The weight of stereotype
This does not occur with Larsson, even though the reader has to hold on to continuities over three volumes and well over a thousand pages. Another difference is in the chief male protagonists. Mikael Blomkvist, the campaigning journalist in the Larsson trilogy, escapes the stereotype that often prevails when the ‘hero’ of a crime thriller is the detective.
Harry Hole in The Snowman has at least moved on in terms of interest from the (honestly) boring Harry featured in The Redbreast. He is as dull as the weather; indeed one feels that the wet and the cold (characteristics of Nordic fiction as a whole) have cooled him off as a person, often rendering him inert.
This problem with the detective protagonist recurs in other Nordic tales. In Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back we encounter Inspector Sejer. He is sharp, persistent, patient; but he is a plodder. He and his young assistant, Skarre, have a relationship distantly similar to that of Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis.

Curiously the Morse novels also reflect some of the dry and dour atmosphere of the Nordics; it’s only when TV carries the viewer into the glories of Oxford and enriches characterisation with non-verbal communication and fresh new dialogue (by writers such as Alan Paton) that the stories take on colour and humour.

Gloves and mufflers
It could be, of course, that the ice and snow, the shivering winds which are so characteristic of stories written by the Nordics are inescapable and a necessary component. After all, the Wallander TV series (the two Swedish versions plus the British) are, not to put a too fine a point on it, no advertisement for holidaying in Sweden any more than the Danish The Killing series persuade us to rush to book a flight to Copenhagan. The opening line of Henning Mantell’s novel The Dogs of Riga neatly summarises the entire genre of Nordic crime fiction: ‘It started snowing shortly after 10am.’

What constitutes the ‘right pace’ in a story is a matter of reader judgment. Fossum’s Don’t Look Back works on a narrower, quieter terrain than do her male rivals. The body count in 400 pages is modest, but there is more scrutiny: the crime here allows the author to dissect a tiny Norwegian community with scalpel sharpness.

Talking of scalpels, a common factor of Nordic crime novels (and TV series) is the brutality of the killings. The horrors described in the Millennium trilogy were given dramatic emphasis in the films that followed. In Hakan Nesser’s Borkmann’s Point our murderer specialises in beheadings. Nesser is also characteristic in the way he spins things out, taking 321 pages to reveal what the reader has guessed since page 200; only the crime-busters themselves don’t get it.

The author almost confesses as much when he puts the following words into the mouth of the now-revealed axe-man: ‘I thought it took you a bit long, even so…’

In a similar way to Harry Hole’s entanglement with a distant past in The Redbreast, Inspector Erlander in Reykjavik author Arnaldur Indridason’s Hypothermia neglects the crime he is supposed to be solving for one that obsesses him from the past.

This reader spent most of the time wishing he’d just get on with the crime he was being paid to solve; either that or make the crime-past as interesting to the reader as Erlander seems to find it. The book drifts along, indulging in loads of aimless dialogue. It has none of the menace of Nesbo or the dynamic incident of Larsson. The problem seems to be to find original character traits in stock police stereotypes.

What the books do have is loads of atmosphere; it’s cold, it’s bleak, the territory is under constant snow or icy hail; the chilling factor of the murders is already anticipated, underscored and sharpened by the weather. One is left hankering for a little glow of Oxford in the night.

POEMS OF PLACE 5: Jarrow Visited

Below the grey gleam of the Slake,
Tide-abandoned, rustles the polluted Don –
Oily and sluggish, tin-canned,
Rubber-tyred and rusty-prammed
Beneath the ancient black stones
Of Bede’s golden kingdom.

Curlews share the rainy wind with ragged gulls
And one rapt pilgrim by the shore.
His eyes have scanned, fingers touched,
Mind encompassed everything in books –
Till now, when his senses faithfully portray
The real Jarrow, its illuminations shed:
This lunar fortress of Esso towers
And Shell Petroleum, of sad vessels
At lonely wharves turned to rusted stone;
Of gibbets in Slake mud where Vikings once
Broke open the dawn with blood and fire.

Then why the resonances, loud as a peal of bells
For this intruder on his cheap day-return;
Beyond the sight, what perception?
Hear the boots on cobbled streets –
Jarrow’s crusaders are on the march, banners high
While sounding brass bears them south
To gentler climes yet bastions deaf to reason.

Here, times without number, the battle for sensibility,
For civilisation, has been fought over but never won,
Between song of pen and whistle of sword,
Between the promised land and King Brass
Leaving loosestrife and charlock sole victors.

Only the dream remains, its vision blunted
On the cold sea wind: and this dreamer –
Straining in solitary vigil, to capture
The timeless canticles of Bede’s flock,
The furnace heat of Red Ellen’s oratory.

Nature eternal has the last word:
Once upon a time humans passed this way.

Our postbag has approached ‘Dear Father Christmas…’ proportions as a result of Ned Baslow’s first Letter to Celebrities. Clearly Ned is fast on the way to becoming a celebrity himself. See below for his latest contribution; but first, three items from the postbag.

Dear Blogmaster
It has clearly escaped your redacting eye that Ned Baslow, though neither an ox nor a moron is not above putting the two together as in ‘King Harold (nèe Godwinson)’. While acutely aware of the gravity of the statement, I am astonished that it has been left to Ned Baslow to reveal after all these years that Harold was born a woman. But in that case should it not be Godwinflaed?

If he had written ‘Harold née Godwinflaed or Godwinfleda’ then this would have been an indication that the Anglo Saxons had mastered gender realignment surgery some time before 1066. An opportunity lost to point out that yet again the Saxons led the werold.
TW, South Ealing.

Dear Editor
Mr. Ned Baslow is perfectly free to hand out advice to Harold Godwinson but comparing the Normans to present-day Tories is to do neither of them an ounce of credit. First, where would we be without the Normans? And don’t say ‘under the Tories’. They’ve given us castles and cathedrals that make Britain one of the chief tourist attractions of the world.

You only need to watch films about Saxons, with their unkempt beards and their late-night booze-ups to realise what the country would have turned out like if Harold had taken Mr. Baslow’s advice and considered his predicament rather than pitching in his boneheaded housecarls without a decent breakfast.

True, under the Tories very few of us have access any more to a decent breakfast, but in my book Harold Wilson was as much to blame as Billy Norman, not to mention Jack Straw, who at least answers your letters (which Harold Wilson never did).
MC, Rishton-Under-Lyme.

Dear Ed.,
Looks to me like King Harold never got Ned Baslow’s warning letter. The rest, as they say, has been history.
DAC, St. Leonard’s-on-Sea.

We have also had a number of emails, mainly from teenage readers, who want to know how you become a Housecarl. We have passed on their enquiries to Google Search.

See below for Ned’s 2nd letter to celebrities.

Ned Baslow: Letters to Celebrities 2
The editorial team has exercised its right to abridge Mr. Baslow’s contribution.

Dear Mr. Homer,
It is a lucky coincidence that the manager of our local post office is Greek, a Mr. Papandreou, though we call him Mr. P or Phil the Greek (not to be confused with Prince Philip, our Prince Consort). My wife Betty gets in to lots of conversations with Mr. P, especially since she joined an Open University course which seems to be really worked up about Greek civilisation.
Betty’s brain is now buzzing with questions about your good self, your authorship of The Iliad and The Odyssey; and I have to admit I’ve taken a peek at your stories, my particular favourite being the one about the goddess who turned blokes into wild animals; oh, and the one about the Cyclops with one eye: a real no-brain.

Betty says all that is symbolic, but to be honest with you, she’s not altogether convinced you could have got away with stories that size and never thought to write them down. In short, what’s the secret? I mean, those books took our Betty three months to read, and she confesses she skipped a chunk here and there, particularly the battle scenes which, to be honest, Mr. H, get rather repetitive, that is until you get to the Wooden Horse.

I guess you’ll be pretty pleased, by the way, at the number of films and TV series that old horse has inspired. It takes a bit of believing, though – I mean, you wheel this flipping great nag through the city gates, the Trojans doing the pulling and pushing, and yet not one of them asks, ‘Is it hollow?’ Even my Benjie spotted that one, and he’s only nine.

Betty’s theory is that the Trojans were caught napping, literally, found the Greeks plundering them and their wives, so they cooked up the horse-story in order to illustrate, and give proof to, the old saying, ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’.

Which brings me to my query on Betty’s behalf: what real store can we put on your having anything whatever to do with these (in my humble view, overlong) masterpieces? Further, if the ancient Egyptians had been writing their hieroglyphics for thousands of years, how come you seem to have been unfamiliar with pen or paper, or should I say quill and parchment?

Now I can hear you saying, what about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John? They weren’t around to check their facts about J.C., and yet by and large they get the same events more or less in the same order; but that is my point. Plainly M,M,L and J got together. It’s obvious – a case of what Betty’s tutor refers to as ‘collusion’ or (the Lord spare us) a ‘coalition’.

So I am putting it you, Mr. H, on behalf of Mrs. B, that The Iliad and The Odyssey were created by a team of scriptwriters who scrabbled around for a pseudonym to protect themselves against the wrath of Zeus, Athena, Poseidon and the like, in exactly the same way that scores if not hundreds of poets have adopted the name Anon to cover both their tracts and their tracks.

A single iota of proof of your authenticity would be welcome. For example, how is it that you had no Christian name; that there are no blue plaques put up by the Greeks in their towns and cities to celebrate the so-described greatest poet of the ancient world; why no statues, or a tomb full of your bits and pieces, your memoirs on tape?

Please regard this letter as a genuine academic enquiry. But more, there could be something in it for you of a positive – nay, profitable – nature. The Illy and the Oddy have sold a fair number of copies down the centuries. I reckon we’re talking millions. Betty says they’ve even been translated into Kazakstani and Sherpa.

So the royalties, in addition to film rights, might by this time equal the gross national product of a fair size country, and would certainly have a steadying effect on the economy of your alleged homeland, which has had more downs than ups in its history since your day.

I look forward with excited anticipation to receiving some clarification from you; or as my Betty has charmingly put it, ‘Mr. H – show me the evidence!’ If writing is a problem (some theorists, Betty says, believe dyslexia was your handicap), we would be happy to receive a phone-call, preferably between six pm and eight – but do please check whether Greece has finally decided whether it will be an hour ahead or an hour behind Greenwich Mean Time.

With many thanks for your patience in reading this letter (or having it translated) and in the hope that we can settle the question of your existence swiftly and to the satisfaction of all.

Sincerely and Confidentially,

Ned Baslow (for Mrs. B.Baslow)
‘Yer Tis’
Old Roman Road

In Blog 28 Ned offers a few words of apology, on behalf of William Blake and the British Museum, to King Nebuchadnezzar.

Happy Christmas!