Friday, June 29, 2012

So This Just Popped Into My Head

"If anyone knows any reason why these two should not be married, let them speak now."

There was silence.

Damn it, though the bride, and married the man she loved second best in all the world.

Afterword: I have not the least clue where this came from, but it's a pretty good hook, or possibly a fine ending.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

I Read Dickens: Reprinted Pieces

In the back of  of the volume which contains Dickens' Christmas Stories are his reprinted pieces, a compilation of stories, fables, political commentary, satire, straight reportage and delirious mixtures of the previous. Most interesting are his interviews with detectives, as they tell stories about crimes they have detected. His report on a night following a policeman and heading up and down the Thames on a police boat is also fascinating.

Less so are his overly extended political satire. Most successful is probably his story of how a man got a patent, which involves passing documents back and forth through a dozen offices with each one charging a fee or two or three. A fable about Prince Bull who is constantly having trouble with his red-cloaked godmother Tape is mildly amusing until we realise that this is about the Crimean War.

There's a few cute or clever ideas amongst the rest of the stories, but for the most part it's for completists and victoriana enthusiasts.

Read This: The police pieces, especially The Detective Police are of interest; for the rest only if you really love Dickens.
Don't Read This: If outdated satire, police procedure and slighter stories aren't your bag.
In Addition: His review of the cattle markets and abattoirs of Paris is awkwardly framed in the claims of a London councilman opposing reform of Smithfield market; he tries to take seriously the claim that copying the French is wrong because they eat frogs and wear clogs rather eat beef and wear leather, but can't sustain it. It is an interesting failure called A Monument of French Folly.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

I Read Books: Dickens' Christmas Stories

On with my surprisingly thorough read of Dickens' published works, and to celebrate the super long June Bank Holiday I've read his Christmas books. First, most famously, and best is A Christmas Carol. Spoilers ensue, although it's been published for 168 years, it's not long, you can find it online, and it's been made into films many times, so really you have no excuse.

Miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner[1], who warns him that three more ghosts will turn up. They proceed to do so, showing Scrooge the true meaning of Christmas, which it seems is to eat, drink, have fun and spend your money in the most flamboyant and conspicuous way possible. Scrooge finds this much more fun than being miserly and bitter, as his money isn't doing him much good anyway, so it's kind of a win-win. One interesting point is that Dickens goes out of his way to make us sure that Marley really is dead, and so really is a ghost; this is one of the starts of the modern ghost-as-speaking-character thing. Dickens is already co-credited with the modern detective novel. Is there no end to his influence[2]?

Next is The Chimes: A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In. In this story Trotty Veck, a courier, has to pass some messages around the worthies of the district. These people have a very low opinion of the poor[3], causing him to lose faith in people and the future. Then he hears the bells chime, climbs the tower and there is informed by the goblin attendants of the bells that his loss of faith caused him to fall, and show him the future results of this, which are universally bad. Trotty then wakes, the bells chime for New Years Day and his daughter gets married. This is not as successful story-wise as A Christmas Carol, probably because although Trotty's sin (despair) is much the same as Scrooge's, Scrooge's worst enemy is himself, whilst the establishment is all against Trotty and the hope he's given is less all encompassing. Scrooge saves his soul, and Trotty saves his, and probably a whole bunch of others as well, but it all feels on a much smaller scale. On Boxing Day Scrooge can spend money and make everyone happy; on 2 January Trotty and family will go back to work, slightly better people. All in all too realistic an ending[4].

The Cricket on the Hearth comes next. John Peerybingle lives with his wife, baby, clumsy comic-relief nurse and a cricket that acts as a guardian angel to the family. He is a carrier, and during the Christmas season delivers a bunch of stuff including an old deaf bloke and a wedding cake to a toymaker who will be marrying a young friend of Peerybingle's wife. The old deaf bloke turns out to be a young guy in disguise, and in a sit-com style misunderstanding, Peerybingle's wife appears to concealing this and is having some kind of affair. Up all night by the hearth, Peerybingle initially feels murderous, but under the influence of the cricket decides to be gracious and just turn her out[5]. Then it turns out the young guy is actually the fiancee of the wife's friend, thought dead in South America. They get married, and the toymaker initially somewhat nonplussed sends the cake, as he doesn't need it, then, thanks to the True Spirit of Christmas joins them and becomes much happier. This is good clean Dickens-lite fun - everyone redeemed, last minute weddings, people returned from the dead. I quite liked it.

I continue to be puzzled by The Battle of Life. The title refers to a great battle that took place where the events of the story take place and it has had an effect ever since[6]. There are two sisters, and one is due to be married, but then appears to elope. Six years go by and the other sister falls in love with and marries the fiance. Various other characters have moved on and generally improved their position, then the other sister returns to reveal that she actually went to her aunts to get out of the way of her sister. Then there's an ending, which is happy? Like the previous one, this kind of sit-com situation would be much more quickly and easily resolved if they talked to each other. Especially the sisters, who are supposed to be close.

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain, the last of these has the most interesting idea at it's heart[7]. Redlaw is visited by a phantom twin who offers him the chance to forget all the pain and suffering in his life, and this will be contagious. Following this Redlaw, and everyone he comes into contact with, becomes a giant arsehole, because they have forgotten how bad things feel, and also as part of it, how their family and friends helped them in those times. Fortunately Milly Swidger, Redlaw's servant, is so completely and absolutely perfect a woman that she is immune and everything goes back to normal thanks to the True Spirit of Christmas, although everyone is chastened and less of an arse. That losing your memory of bad things makes you act badly is pretty clever.

Read This: A Christmas Carol is a classic. The others less so; The Battle of Life and The Chimes in particular can be skipped by anyone except Dickens completeists. They're all pretty short so take a chance on them if you like the sound.
Don't Read This: If the True Spirit of Christmas is already in your heart. Plus all the other stuff I wrote on previous Dickens novels about the style and random plot events.
Read Online: Links arranged on this page, as I'm too lazy to track down five links.

[1] Business partner. It's not quite that progressive.
[2] Apparently not, as Scrooge saying "I am as merry as a school-boy. A merry Christmas to everybody!" helped popularise the phrase 'Merry Christmas'. Bah, humbug.
"Divide the amount of tripe before mentioned, Alderman," said Mr Filer, "by the estimated number of existing widows and orphans, and the result will be one pennyweight of tripe to each. Not a grain is left for that man. Consequently, he's a robber."
Trotty was so shocked , that it gave him no concern to see the Alderman finish the tripe himself.
This is very poor political economy, and not Dickens' subtlest work.
[4] For a magically-real allegory.
[5] For all my irony, the difficulty and problems of divorce in the 1840s mean he is being gracious.
[6] Based on what happens, I can only assume that it makes people choose the most roundabout way to solve matters of honour and discretion.
[7] If only because time travelling ghosts are much more familiar to us thanks to the popularity of A Christmas Carol.

Friday, June 01, 2012

This Writing Is Criminal

Three weeks of update from my creative writing class. My excuse, such as it is, is that all three are linked, and the next one won't be. So let's get on!

Firstly we were given the task of creating a character based on three attributes that we pulled out of various envelopes; one a physical description, one a non-physical description and one an occupation, hobby or preference. Mine were Cheeky; Exotic and Wealthy Looking; and Passionate About Shoes. It was suggested that we try and keep them serious.

This is not based on anyone I know.

Heinrich von Schneemann

Heinrich von Schneemann arrived unheralded in London society one evening. Presumably he had an invitation to Lady Glenshire’s soiree – it was inconceivable that he could have got in without one – and he certainly livened it up. One moment it was the usual people with the usual gossip and the next he was there, resplendent in a white dinner jacket, his dark lustrous hair swept back to reveal a noble brow, pale eyes and a dagger of a nose. His cologne smelt of autumn, a dangerous scar marred his cheek and his voice was rich, dark and bitter as coffee.

“Shoes!” he said to Miss Fortesque-Gordon. “I must talk to you about your shoes.”

Within moments the usually serious and reserved girl was laughing merrily at his stories. An admiring circle formed around him that did not break up until carriages were announced. The evening was declared a great success, marred only by some confusion in the cloakroom.

Schneemann was to be found wherever the right people gathered. Young men were thrilled by his tales of adventure that hinted at exploits that might be frowned on by their parents. Young women were romanced by the mere sound of his voice and lost themselves in his pale eyes. Rumours abounded; he had fought slavers in the Sudan; he had discovered a silver mine in the Yukon; he was the natural son of the Kaiser.

It was inevitable that he would be asked his opinion of the curious theft of Lady Smith-Smythe’s wardrobe. “A most unusual crime, and a most unusual thief,” he said. “The hats, the dresses, the shawls and coats – all tailored to fit her ladyship’s... unique figure and useless to anyone else. But the footwear – boots of Moroccan leather, patent leather court shoes, and – oh! - the jewelled sandals – these could be sold, gifted or perhaps simply admired by a connoisseur.”

Schneemann himself was always perfectly shod. It was only later, after the events at Ascot, that his mysterious past, his passion for shoes and his easy way with ladies combined to make clear the full extent of his malice.
As can be seen I made him a villain. The class thought he was some kind of cheap conman, but I had in mind someone working towards their revenge. Time to beef up his threat!

Of course for the next week we had to take our serious character and write some comedy about them, preferably from their point of view.

The Greatest Thief In London

From the corner of his eye he sees her past the unclosed door. Her blond hair drawn on top of her head is decorated with roses, bringing out the colour of her faintly pink cheeks. In the electric light the strawberry and cream dress matches her complexion. He can hear her laugh, like a tiny silver bell ringing in an unexpected draft.

Heinrich von Schneemann drags his attention down to where Miss Bedford removes the most exquisite pair of boots he has ever seen in order to change into dancing shoes. His plans for the evening - the invitations to gather, the secrets to confirm, the miscreants to threaten - slip from his mind. "They gleam like dark jewels,” he thinks. “I must have them even if it costs me my revenge."

He watches as the boots are put into a pretty fabric covered box. It is labelled, and put away in the cupboard behind the cloakroom. He forms a plan.

Moments later he had gathered some supplies and approaches a footman with a package in hand. "Excuse me. I had brought this for Colonel Campbell, but it appears he has been detained. Could you keep it somewhere safe for me?" As expected his package is put into an identical box, labelled and added to the shelves in the cupboard.

After a brief furtive visit to one of the backrooms he joins the party, making his presence obvious. As the time approaches ten o'clock he manoeuvres his way towards the entrance. The clocks chime and the lights flicker and die.

They are quickly restored, but the mood of the party is broken. Schneemann is the first to arrive at the cloakroom. The footman hands him his hat, coat, gloves and the package.

Safely in his cab, Schneemann can hardly contain himself. A daring theft, under the noses of London society, conceived and executed in a mere thirty minutes. He opens the package.

"Gott in Himmel!" he cries. "I didn't go to all that trouble to steal these. What use do I have for Lady Fanshawe's priceless diamonds?"
First criticism is that I mention the word "package" too often. Also, what with some other members of the class using smut, innuendo and double entendres for comedy, the perfectly innocent phrase "...a footman with a package in hand" slipped out as something that bright 14 year olds might snigger at. The punchline was much admired.

No one spotted that the crime, as described, couldn't have ended as it did. Either Schneemann has a bumbling assistant[1] which would lead us down one path, or, and I favour this, in this upper-class Edwardian world people gossip about your country weekend if no daring jewel theft, murder, scandal or elopement takes place. So Schneemann's boot theft has accidentally got caught up in someone else's jewel theft.

I assume that Schneemann's package contains racy French novels, probably inscribed as the property of Duke of Mirkshire.

Lastly we began with some detection in class, in my case investigating a building then added a crime.

True Crime

“Come along, dear.”

Katie Bedford danced across a water filled wheel rut. “I don’t want to ruin my boots. I’ve been through three pairs this month already.”

The abandoned building loomed up from the muddy grass, the dark stone barely distinguishable from the mist. High above bare rafters showed where the roof had fallen in. Although it had finally stopped raining the air was full of moisture.

“Lady Jane, what’s so interesting about the ruins anyway? The house is called Stanworth Abbey. This must be the old abbey.”

Lady Jane turned around, one hand holding onto her hat, her elegant grey coat swirling about her. “An abbey? What about the windows?”

“What windows? Oh! There aren’t any. So this wasn’t an abbey. A fortress? A prison?”

“More likely a warehouse. Now come along. I promised your mother I’d look after you.”

Katie pouted. “I don’t need a chaperone for a country weekend with the McTavishes. I’m nineteen!”

“That’s exactly why you need someone to keep an eye on you my dear.”

The doorway was partially blocked. Peculiarly the wheel ruts they had followed lead straight there, then stopped. Lady Jane tapped her umbrella thoughtfully against her boot.

“There’s a gap. I can climb in,” said Katie, hitching up her skirt and preparing to do so. She paused a moment, then pushed and pulled at the bricks. The pile swung smoothly open.

“A secret door!” said Katie, wide eyed in excitement.

Lady Jane peered into the gloomy interior. Inside the door was a hurricane lamp on a table, which she lit with matches from her handbag. The two women could see several dozen wooden boxes and a small desk with a cardboard folder on it, all protected by a tarpaulin roof.

Katie found the lids were nailed down. Taking a crowbar from the ground she struggled to open a box for several minutes before discovering the trick of it. Inside were several bottles.

“Grand Vin de Chateau Latour, Premier Grand Cru Classé, 1899. It’s wine Lady Jane!”

“Hmm?” said Lady Jane, deeply absorbed in the contents of the folder. “Well of course. The stuff McTavish served last night was barely drinkable.”

“Someone has been stealing General McTavish’s wine, and selling it. No one can interfere with the wine cellar without the butler knowing about it. I thought he looked shifty. We should have the police lock him up.”

“What?” Lady Jane looked up in alarm at the mention of the police. “No, no. Firstly that would be a great scandal and your mother would never let me hear the end of it. Secondly, the replacing of McTavish’s claret could never have happened without his noticing. He served in the Scots Guards after all. Thirdly he has always lived beyond his means, so a little surreptitious wine dealing for undeclared profits is no surprise. The documents make it all clear.”

Katie was disappointed. “So he’s selling his own wine? That’s the mystery? I don’t even think it’s illegal.”

Lady Jane stared at the naive girl with pity. “Really my dear. Serving an inferior vintage is always a crime.”
I've rewritten the line that the class didn't like, because it annoys me now and is sloppy. Katie Bedford is, of course, the Miss Bedford whose boots Schneemann attempted to steal above in The Greatest Thief in London. Lady Jane is also Lady Glenshire who previously appeared as Carstair's client in The Case of the Purloined Pornography (Part 2 here. Both parts are Safe for Work, assuming that your work allows you to read rather silly detective stories).

[1] One other, risky option would be to bribe, blackmail and/or threaten a servant.