July 7th, 2013


June Books 20) Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl

What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.
This was a Dahl that I think I missed out on when I was younger; a very short story of a boy and his father, published in 1975 but surely set some decades earlier, in which the two launch a symbolic assault on the local capitalist's citadel by drugging and stealing all his pheasants. It turns out that the entire of the local community - doctor, vicar, policeman, midwife - are all in on the poaching scam, so Danny appears to be involved with a community uprising against the local autocrat.

But in fact this political interpretation may not be right: Mr Hazell's big crime is not being rich per se, but trying to impress people with his wealth; the worst things said of him involve him being rude to the villagers and trying to buy respect from other rich people. Hazell's flaws are his ego and lack of sincerity; Danny's father is completely genuine. So what at first seems an adventure story of a boy and a slightly older boy (his father) having a romp in the woods, and at second glance might be a political parable, is actually a moral tale of being true to yourself.

June Books 21) TARDIS Eruditorum Volume 3: Jon Pertwee, by Philip Sandifer

I will admit, up front, that the Pertwee era is far from my favorite era of Doctor Who. And this is not an uncommon opinion in Doctor Who fandom. Though the heyday of Pertwee bashing came in the 1990s, it’s notable that when Time Unincorporated began collecting major essays from the fanzine scene it devoted an entire chapter to the Pertwee controversy. And while they admit that the controversy had largely dissipated, there is still something about the Pertwee era – something that isn’t true of either the Troughton or Hartnell eras – that invites a love-it-or-hate-it debate. It is, in many ways, the first controversial era of Doctor Who.
This is the third in the series of collected articles from Philip Sandifer's excellent blog, this time looking at the Pertwee era, of which Sandifer and I share the majority view among fandom - though it is not a crushing majority - that this is not Old Who's finest period. But rather than whining about the stories, like I have done, Sandifer unpacks with some care why it is that the Third Doctor sometimes doesn't quite work, often rather sympathetically, particularly to Pertwee himself, and also Katy Manning and Nicholas Courtney on whom the success of the stories often depends. I had previously read his essay on Moonbase 3 after watching the episodes; but in the context of the other essays showing what Dicks and Letts were trying to achieve, and why it barely worked in Who and didn't work on the Moon in 2003, it makes a lot more sense. Basically his thesis is that the show was flitting uneasily between action and glam, though Dicks and Letts may not have been fully aware of this themselves.

There is also some brilliant additional coloration in the side essays on Monty Python and David Bowie, and the piece on The Three Doctors is an extended riff on William Blake which also quotes another William, my brother. As before, Sandifer explains better to me what I have seen on screen and makes me want to expand my reading / viewing (though in fact none of the non-TV Who referenced here, five books and two audios, were new to me).

Which is not to say that I completely agree with him. On a broad point, I find Sandifer's overall tracking of the show's history deterministic and almost Whiggish. To pull another quote, this time from the Planet of the Spiders essay:
Pertwee doesn’t regenerate because his time is past. He regenerates because he’s finally accomplished what his era set out to do in the first place.
It's a nice peroration, but it is very much projecting the future onto the past as if it were inevitable (which is what I mean by Whiggish). Pertwee regenerated, fundamentally, because the actor decided / was persuaded to leave the show. The artistic judgements about where to take the story flowed partly from that fact and largely from other factors affecting the show's creators, some of which we know about and some of which we don't. And while it's good and satisfying that towards the end of Planet of the Spiders, Pertwee's Doctor has a moment of repentance and redemption before he dies, I think it's a strong reading (which is to say, factually incorrect) to say that he regenerates because he has accomplished his mission - indeed, I wish that it were otherwise; I'd have preferred if this thought had been better integrated into the story as a whole, better yet the season as a whole, rather than just dragged in at the end.

And on a much more specific point, I agreed with almost all of Sandifer's judgements of individual stories with the extraordinary exception of The Mutants, which most fans would put pretty far down the list of Pertwee stories and I would put firmly at the bottom. Sandifer praises it, though not terribly coherently, for its use of "spectacle". I will allow it good use of location filming, but really not much more than that; in terms of spectacle, the transmogrification of Ky at the end is surely a botch? Its political messages are certainly botched, and so, rather more often than one can forgive, is the acting and directing.

Anyway, despite my occasional disagreements, another good addition to the thinking fan's bookshelf.

June Books 22) The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

“My good Adso,” my master said, “during our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book. Alanus de Insulis said that and he was thinking of the endless array of symbols with which God, through His creatures, speaks to us of the eternal life. But the universe is even more talkative than Alanus thought, and it speaks not only of the ultimate things (which it does always in an obscure fashion) but also of closer things, and then it speaks quite clearly. I am almost embarrassed to repeat to you what you should know. At the crossroads, on the still-fresh snow, a horse’s hoofprints stood out very neatly, heading for the path to our left. Neatly spaced, those marks said that the hoof was small and round, and the gallop quite regular— and so I deduced the nature of the horse, and the fact that it was not running wildly like a crazed animal. At the point where the pines formed a natural roof, some twigs had been freshly broken off at a height of five feet. One of the blackberry bushes where the animal must have turned to take the path to his right, proudly switching his handsome tail, still held some long black horsehairs in its brambles…. You will not say, finally, that you do not know that path leads to the dungheap, because as we passed the lower curve we saw the spill of waste down the sheer cliff below the great south tower, staining the snow; and from the situation of the crossroads, the path could only lead in that direction.”

I first read this as a teenager and loved it then, and I love it even more now; a fantastic medieval mystery story, turned into a film starring Sean Connery and a young Christian Slater, buttressed by sly references to literature and philosophy throughout.

Things I got when I was a teenager: The Sherlock Holmes reference in the anem of William of Baskerville. The fantastic structure of the library mapping out the world in its own weird way. The careful construction of the actual mystery, in the best traditions of detective writers (in fact, rather better than a lot of Doyle or Christie). The heresy. The sex.

Things I didn't get but do now: The importance of the repeated theme of signs and symbols. The references to the history of philosophy and science. The reason why the blind ex-librarian is Jorge of Burgos. The fact that William's discourse on parliamentary democracy, based on the principles of scholastic philosophy, actually ties in with the contemporary de modo tenendi parliamentum.

I may be in a minority, but I also really like both the occasional descents into long lists of things, which is a decent nod towards the actual writing style of the time, and the introduction which furnishes the author's excuse for the rest of the book not being as authentic in style. A brilliant book and I will not wait twenty-five years before reading it again.

A long footnote on The Name of the Rose

De pentagono Salomonis, Ars loquendi et intelligendi in lingua hebraica, De rebus metallicis by Roger of Hereford, Algebra by Al-Kuwarizmi, translated into Latin by Robertus Anglicus, the Punica of Silius Italicus, the Gesta francorum, De laudibus sanctae crucis by Rabanus Maurus, and Flavii Claudii Giordani de aetate mundi et bominis reservatis singulis litteris per singulos libros ab A usque ad Z,” my master read. “Splendid works. But in what order are they listed?” He quoted from a text I did not know but which was certainly familiar to Malachi: “‘ The librarian must have a list of all books, carefully ordered by subjects and authors, and they must be classified on the shelves with numerical indications.’ How do you know the collocation of each book?”
I'm pulling out this particular quote partly because it's a great example of something that looks like local colour but actually turns out to be fundamental to the plot, but mainly because it has a reference to Roger of Hereford, the medieval scholar on whom I was once an expert. Collapse )