An Adventure in Moominland

MoominsA while ago now, we went to see Adventures in Moominland at the Soutbbank Centre at the weekend, and I can safely say I’ve never been to an exhibition like it before, and also that it’s the most my five-year-old has ever enjoyed an exhibition (and he does like visiting art galleries anyway). I’ve always been fond of the Moomins: from when I first got them out of the school library when I was about 8, I’ve always felt they were admirable creatures: they’re cute and appealing, but also sensible. They deal with life well, enjoying the world around them and building strong relationships – but in a fun way. I love how Moominmama is always in the kitchen, with her handbag and an apron, but is quite happy to just go off on an adventure at the drop of a hat – we should all be a bit more like that. The loner philosopher Snufkin is my favourite, I think, though. So it’s been a delight to introduce my son to the books, and since the exhibition offered a chance to go into Moominland, how could we resist?!

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No photos are allowed inside, so I can only describe it, but the exhibition is set up as a imagesjourney into Moominland. You begin in a tent, where the Moomins camp out, and there is a tour guide (who refers to the children as ‘My young adventurers’) and also a voice-over with more discussion of the author, Tove Jansson’s life, beautifully done by Sandi Toksvig. You travel through magic forests with “real” snow on the ground, tropical gardens with sand, haze and plants, where the Hemulen collects his botanical samples, the boathouse (which doubles up as Jansson’s studio), and many other scenes, and end up in Moominhouse, where the Moomins are asleep, snoring, in the next room. There’s two interlinking narratives here; the guide presents one suitable for children, and while the children are tampere-art-museum-moominvalley-collection-photo-jari-kuusenaho-2-copy-1001x1024exploring there is also the voiceover which gives more information for adults. I didn’t know much about Jansson’s life but it was fascinating: how she developed the characters of the Moomin family and their friends, how she worked contemporary events during WW2 into her stories, etc. There are not just scenes, of course, but also many, many original drawings by Jansson, and they really are wonderful; the detail (and, often, menace) in them really makes them works of art in their own right. They are in protective cases that appear as suitcases, set in walls, or otherwise presented so that they are at child level but safe from small fingers! It’s an innovative and informative way of exhibiting Jansson’s work which draws on her life and her work, and has equal appeal to adults and children. It was meant to close in April but has been extended until August, giving more people a chance to see it.

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A Bear Called Paddington

paddington-bear I’ve been a bit obsessed with Paddington for as long as I can remember, and I still think Michael Bond’s original books are some of the funniest books ever written. The night before my viva for my Ph.D., I read one of my favourites, in which Paddington gets stuck in a box camera and careers into a flower-bed, and felt much more cheerful. There is something about the literal and slightly daft approach of this endearing bear which I found irresistible as a child and as an adult (and, incidentally, my small son in his wellington boots with his surprising questions rather reminds me of Paddington). The books were some of the first that made me feel that just to read a book wasn’t enough; I somehow had to live it (a feeling which got me into all kinds of ‘situations’ as a child, especially once I wanted to be a part of the Just William books). Now, I knew that when I went to see the new Paddington film, I would have to try to mentally suspend my history with Paddington and see the film as something separate, and I sort-of managed this. We took my son (who, Paddington-like, was too small for the fold-down seats in the cinema, which promptly flipped up with him inside), and he seemed to enjoy it – at any rate, he sat still throughout, possibly helped by the mountain of snacks he ate. Paddington

I was more ambivalent about the film. It’s always difficult, watching a film of a book you love and know well; in fact, much of the plot of the film bore little relation to the books, and seemed closer to the film of The Golden Compass, since Nicole Kidman plays a villain in both. In this film, she wants to have Paddington stuffed and displayed in the Natural History Museum, and much of the film is taken up with this plot, which seems far too out-of-the-ordinary for Paddington, whose adventures usually involved getting lost, getting tied up in string, DIY disasters or other well-meaning but doomed attempts to be useful. The plot was fairly well-put-together, with Kidman playing the daughter of an explorer who had met Paddington’s Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo (and taught them to speak English, which nicely explains the Anglophone bear); but the explorer was too humane to catch and kill one of the bears and consequently his career was ruined, hence his daughter’s desire to catch Paddington. The opening scenes in which we learn a little of Paddington’s history, and his family’s wish that he go to London where everyone was friendly (practising the many ways the British have of saying ‘it’s raining’) were entertaining, and the Brown family were likeable (if surprisingly well-off, given the house they lived in). But for most of the film, I was trying to push aside the thought that this wasn’t my Paddington; he didn’t even look quite right to me, and some of the things he did just didn’t seem quite appropriate. However, I can see that perhaps for today’s audiences the more restrained antics of Bond’s bear (bailing out bathwater with his hat, for example, rather than flooding the bathroom and sailing down the stairs in the bath) might have seemed rather tame; and there are many genuinely funny moments in the film. My favourite of these was when Paddington, having run away from the Browns, shares a sandwich with a guard at Buckingham Palace – and it turns out he isn’t the only one who keeps things under his hat; the guard has a thermos under there.

Despite my reservations, it’s a nice, cosy film, which also manages to have a subtext about being welcoming to strangers, being inclusive and understanding, and the value of a warm heart. Much has been made in reviews of the film about the concept of Paddington as a migrant, a refugee looking for a better place to live and for new friends, and the welcoming, middle-class Brown family, seemingly dressed in Boden, chaotic, tea-drinking and generally cheerful, seem the archetypal Best of British, a central concept which I quite liked but also found a little overdone at times. Still, it made me smile, and reminded me to return to the books I loved, this time with my son, and I hope it will do the same for others who see it.

Rhymes and Reasons: Poetry for children

downloadSmall children love poetry. Most adults, sadly, don’t. What happens in between? There seems to be a popular assumption that if you really like poetry (like me), you must be academic, a bit geeky, probably rather weird (like me). I don’t believe this; I think that too many people are put off poetry at school, perhaps by assumptions made by others around them that it’s ‘boring’; perhaps by exposure to a limited range of poems; perhaps by lacklustre teaching. But this is such a shame – I won’t go into why poetry is important, beautiful, necessary etc here (if you want more on this, read ‘How Poetry can Change Lives‘, which says it better than I can). When I’m teaching poetry to undergraduates, I often hear students say ‘I don’t understand it’. Often, it’s true, poetry doesn’t say things in the same straightforward way that prose does, but poetry is a lot more than just its projected ‘meaning’. I know this because my son, pre-verbal at less than a year old, loved me reading poetry to him; he heard a lot of Tennyson, Rossetti and Shakespeare (and anything else I had memorised) before he had any idea what words were, let alone how to interpret a poem. Of course he loved it – the rhythm, the sounds of the words in your mouth and in the air are hypnotic. How can you not be drawn in by Byron’s ‘The Destruction of Sennacharib’? If you don’t believe me, read it aloud.

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.images

What about Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall’?

When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;
When I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed:
When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be.—
In the Spring a fuller crimson comes upon the robin’s breast;
In the Spring the wanton lapwing gets himself another crest;
In the Spring a livelier iris changes on the burnish’d dove;
In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.

Poems are meant to be read aloud, and one of the pleasures of having a small child is the reading process. Of course, it’s good for them in an educational sense, and in a bonding way too, but it is also fun. Now my son is nearly 3, we have a lot of children’s poems, including the omnipresent Julia Donaldson (my particular favourite is The Highway Rat because of my affection for Alfred Noyes’ poem), but mostly, we have A A Milne’s poems of Pooh Bear and Christopher Robin. They entertain parents as well as children; they have little morals (images (1)some of them) and are absolute nonsense (others). But what they have in common is a gentle repetition, rhymes, a steady, often galloping rhythm, and images which appeal to children. Like all the best children’s (and adults?) literature, they suggest ways in which the world might be better (‘King John’s Christmas’ opens ‘King John was not a good man’, but concludes ‘And oh! Father Christmas, my blessings on you fall, For bringing him a big, red, india-rubber ball!’) ‘The Dormouse and the Doctor‘ reminds us that other people don’t always know best (and is, in its way, a very sad poem). ‘Sneezles‘ reminds us not to get too stressed about children’s colds, while ‘Teddy Bear‘ shows us that fat can be beautiful. All good messages. Be warned, though – these are earworms of the most pernicious variety, and you will find yourself reciting them long after the children are in bed.

In the Fashion’ is Edward’s current favourite: it’s about how a little boy gets a tail because his favourite animals have them; as a result, I have had to make him his own tail (see picture). Another favourite is the completely pointless ‘Busy’, which I rather like because it exactly sums up a child’s life. We often hear Edward muttering ‘Round about and round about and round about and round about’ when he’s meant to be going to sleep:

I think I am a muffin man. I haven’t got a bell.
I haven’t got the muffin things that muffin people sell. 
Perhaps I am a postman. No I think I am a tram. IMG_1081
I’m feeling rather funny and I don’t know what I am–

BUT
Round about 
And round about
And round about I go–
All around the table,
The table in the nursery–
Round about 
And round about
And round about I go–

I think I am a traveller escaping from a bear;
I think I am an elephant
Behind another elephant
Behind another elephant who isn’t really there….

SO
Round about 
And round about
And round about and round about 
And round about
And round about 
I go.

Grace Nichols, a judge of the Foyle Young Poets Award, wrote to the Guardian recently asking ‘Parents, pick poetry’. She points out that children are likely to get into poetry through their parents, and says that ‘a poem read aloud can hold children enthralled, awakening in them a new love of language. Poetry never forgets its roots in song. Children love the sound of words; the surprise of images; of getting their tongues around the music of vowels and consonants.’ She’s right, and perhaps if more children experienced this on a regular basis, more adults would instinctively love poetry too.

Dare You? A Gothic Anthology

20131211-010913 pm.jpgEarlier this year I was sent a book to review: Dare you? The Gothic Anthology by Gifted Young Writers. The books represents an innovative project by Young Publishers, a group of teenagers (and their English teacher) who are keen to make sure that the original writings of children and teenagers can be read in the real world – as their project outline says, they don’t want their work consigned to the fridge door or the classroom wall; they want it in book shops so their talents can be shared as well as their confidence boosted. Dare You? is their first venture, and focuses on Gothic, perhaps because it is such a popular genre at the moment, at least in its modern forms. This anthology takes Gothic in its broadest possible sense, from graveyards to vampires, werewolves to sci-fi, and even some classical influences; and the inspirations behind the writing ranges from Browning to Twilight. The writers are 12 and 13, and have produced between them an intriguing range of responses to Gothic, from classic moonlit scenes to futuristic apocalypses.

Gothic is a complex genre when one tries to analyse and deconstruct it; form, style, aesthetics, purpose and audience are all slippery concepts which vary wildly in the genre without changing an essential Gothicness which is both undefinable and indestructible. All of this and more is apparent here, but there are some interesting complexities about audience here (for whom is this written? What is it’s purpose?) and, as an excellent review of the book from the University of Stirling suggests, the fact that Gothic, traditionally both unsuitable for and appealing to children, is written by children adds an interesting layer, proving its enduring appeal to the young.

A particularly appealing aspect of the anthology is the way in which it reflects one of the essential qualities of Gothic: it’s fragmented nature. Fragments – letters, scraps of manuscripts, overheard conversations, lines of poetry etc – have always been crucial to the Gothic genre from Walpole’s fragmented Gothic knight in Otranto onwards. Gothic isn’t coherent, it isn’t a monolithic structure which can be easily defined, and this book reflects that. Poems are interspersed with stories, some of which are tangentially-related fragments written by more than one person, and these work very well as a modern take on Gothic which plays with genre and text. Some of the stories are particularly gripping with a narrative force which is a credit to their young authors.

My only small concern about the anthology is the editorial decision not to proof-read and remove small errors of spelling and punctuation. While I quite appreciate that the authentic voice of the writers should be preserved, and that a close copy-edit is out of the question, a basic proofing of errors would be appreciated by this reader, at least, since the mistakes tend to obtrude on the reading process and prove to be a distraction. This matter notwithstanding, the book is a laudable effort which demonstrates the ways in which Gothic as a form changes with the times, is adapted and reframed by new writers, and speaks to generation after generation.

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Why Harry Potter is Gothic and Twilight isn’t

There seems to be plenty of discussion on the web about how ‘Gothic’ (or not) Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is; and some discussion about how Gothic (or not) the Harry Potter books are (this relates to the films as well as the books); so I thought I’d offer a few ideas on the matter myself. There are plenty of well-argued articles out there about these areas, for example ‘Harry Potter and the Gothic Novel’ by Elizabeth Murray at http://www.the-leaky-cauldron.org/features/essays/issue8/gothicnovel (plenty of excellent academic essays on Potter there), although Twilight seems to attract more fan-fic, swoony adoration or venomous bile than academic discussion. But nonetheless there seems to be a general assumption (perhaps as a marketing ploy) that Twilight is ‘Gothic’. Or even ‘Goth’ (a fact disputed by Goths across the web, who sagely point out that ‘Goths don’t sparkle’. True. But teenage girls sometimes do, and presumably they like sparkly boys, too.

Harry Potter, however, perhaps partly because it is ostensibly aimed at younger children, often escapes the label of ‘Gothic’ and is instead seen as a school story, or magic/fantasy. Both of which it is, of course, but in my view it conforms to many of the tropes of traditional Gothic. (For those of you who have not, unlike me, spent the last few years reading academic books on Gothic, let me just point out the distinction here: Gothic as a literary form developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century with novels such as The Castle of Otranto, The Monk and Melmoth the Wanderer; re-formed and changed slightly in the mid- to late-nineteenth century with Dracula, and sensation fiction, for example, and eventually became something quite different well into the twentieth century, when the term became much more vague: a straw poll of friends suggested they associate Gothic fiction with fog; darkness; wickedness and romance – quite vague and aesthetic attributes). So Gothic is now more Buffy than swooning heroines, and refers more to ‘atmosphere’ than to anything more concrete or literary. But that still doesn’t make any novel with a few Gothic attributes (vampires, evil, romance) actually Gothic.

Harry Potter conforms with traditional Gothic in one, major aspect: Hogwarts. The Gothic is all about the castle (see Anne Williams, Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), for example). Like The Castle of Otranto, Hogwarts is a historic building which represents centuries of tradition, and as such must be defended. It is from Hogwarts that characters such as Harry Potter find their security and their home; it also is the repository of all things magic and important to the life of the wizarding community. It must therefore be defended from attack at all costs, something we see very clearly in the final book and film. However, it also contains evil. Tom Riddle has infiltrated the castle (and indeed lived there as a student) before he became Voldemort; there are things in the castle which offer a threat to Harry and his friends, and, eventually, they also must seek the Horcrux there. The castle is therefore a part of a tradition of evil, which must be destroyed in order for the world to continue as it should. Gothic is concerned both with preserving history and also destroying it; it has been described as a ‘family romance’ in which the family is both good and evil, and this is clearly true in traditional Gothic novels such as those of Ann Radcliffe in the eighteenth century. The battle for good and evil continues throughout the HP series, with figures mostly clearly identified as good or bad. The hero is of course a young boy rather than a woman, but this is perhaps one way in which JK Rowling has brought her Gothic stories into the modern world.

Twilight also features battles between good and evil, but this is not in itself sufficient to make the books Gothic. Nor is the presence of a vampire and a werewolf: these mythical creatures have become associated with the Gothic, but traditionally such bizarre supernatural manifestations would have been a step too far as major characters. The Gothic novel does combine realism with the supernatural, which Meyer’s books do, but the series is too focussed on the relationship of Bella and Edward for it to qualify as Gothic. Perhaps the best term for the books would be ‘fantasy’, which applies on more than one level: it is fantasy in its creation of mythical characters who become real, and the world of vampires and werewolves which subsequently develops; and it is fantasy in that it has clearly tapped into the fantasies of many teenage girls, particularly with its creation of the beautiful vampire boy and the werewolf Jacob. Any hint of Gothic is about aesthetics (‘shopping list Gothic’) rather than the much more serious (ish) stuff of traditional, historical Gothic.

It seems to me that both books have something to offer tweens and teens as readers, hence their enormous popularity (and with adults, too – clearly I have read them as well!) But while Harry Potter seems to be Gothic dressed up as a magical school story (at least at first), Twilight is a romance dressed up as Gothic: it has the trappings of the genre but not the substance. The Potter books offer something deeper than romance: they serve a fairytale function, which Bruno Bettelheim argues, permit children to learn to identify and exorcize the repression which has caused these monsters (Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales (London: Penguin, 1991)). The youth of the projected age of Rowling’s readers of course does nothing to change the books’ Gothic status: indeed, it has been suggested that children’s literature in something approximating its modern form ‘emerged as a genre largely in reaction to the popularity of the adult Gothic romance’ (Karen Coats, Anna Jackson, Roderick McGillis, eds., The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders (London: Routledge, 2008)). And early children’s literature is terrifying – designed to scare children into good behaviour: for example, Jeremy Taylor’s description of Hell in 1655 was aimed at child-readers: ‘Horrid Darkness, sad and sore,/And an Eternal Night;/Groans and Shrieks; and Thousand more/In the want of glorious Light/[…]/Every corner hath a Snake/In the accursed Lake,/Seas of Fire, Beds of Snow/Are the best Delights below.

Today, I think, we realise that children like to be a little scared – but in a controlled way, where goodness wins in the end. Harry Potter offers that, though not without casualties; Twilight seems to blur the boundaries too much. But they both offer different things to readers of different tastes and ages; just don’t call Twilight Gothic.

Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market ‘

Since I am currently at the marvellous Gladstone’s Library writing a chapter on Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’, I thought perhaps I should write about it here. First published in 1862, it’s her most anthologised and taught poem, not to mention her most popular (the other favourites are ‘In the Bleak Midwinter‘ and ‘Remember’ – this last most often read at funerals). So for readers and critics alike, ‘Goblin Market’ has come to be seen as emblematic of Rossetti’s oeuvre. This is misleading, in  my opinion – her other poems take very different approaches, use different poetic styles, and, most importantly, focus much more on Christianity, full of biblical references. However, there are two very good reasons why ‘Goblin Market’ has become so central to Rossetti’s work.

1. It’s good. Really good; it has an irregular style which doesn’t appeal to everyone (Ruskin didn’t like it), but there are passages which follow a regular rhythm which can almost be chanted, followed by passages of irregular rhythms, cross-rhymes and para-rhymes, which give the poem an interesting texture and make it appealing to read. The poem also has a plot, unusually: it tells a story, of two girls, Laura and Lizzie, who are tempted by enchanted fruit offered to them by goblins. Laura succumbs, and wastes away, seeming likely to die; Lizzie offers herself to the goblins, and eventually both girls are saved. The threat, the fear, the fall, and the happy, moral ending, have had a strong appeal for over a century. It also lends itself to illustrations: there have been lots, from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Arthur Rackham, to Kinuko Craft in Playboy in 1973 (yes, I know). It’s also been set to music several times, and dramatised.

2. It’s open to interpretation. This is the main reason it’s so popular with critics and lecturers: you can read it in so many different ways, and use it to illustrate a huge range of points about Victorian life and literature. Although Rossetti herself said that she ‘did not mean anything profound by this fairy tale – it is not a moral apologue’, that hasn’t stopped people reading a remarkable range of theories into it, some more far-fetched than others. Some of these (frequently overlapping) theories are:

  • It’s a metaphor for anorexia
  • It depicts covert lesbianism (and incest, for that matter)
  • It’s about the economy and the marketplace in Victorian Britain
  • It represents the Anglican Eucharist
  • It’s a critique of gender relations and demonstrates the importance of sisterhood
  • It’s a proto-feminist text
  • It’s based on events which occurred after Rossetti (hypothetically) nearly ran away with a married man
  • It absolves fallen women
  • It condemns fallen women
  • It warns girls not to become fallen women
  • It critiques patriarchal ideology
  • It supports patriarchal ideology
  • It’s an analogy for the Garden of Eden
  • It was inspired by John Polidori‘s The Vampyre (he was her uncle)
  • It’s just a children’s fairytale and means nothing

You can read the poem here if you want to make up your own mind about it!