A Wrinkle In Time By Madeleine L’Engle – Dr Who Meets The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe

A Wrinkle In Time is a science fiction book by Madeleine D’Engle, published in 1962. Winner of the Newbury Medal, it is famous in sci-fi circles for being one of the first books that might be classified as ‘young adult’, and also for its treatment of complex themes involving science and spirituality. I thought it was time to take a look.

The plot involves a group of children and interplanetary travellers, using wrinkles in space time to move around the universe, fighting a vaguely defined enemy called The Black Thing.

Reading the book made me think of both Dr Who, and The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. The Dr Who elements were creaky sets, clunky creatures, frequently dodgy dialogue, combined with interesting ideas. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe came to mind in the not very subtle Christian theme.

So ignoring the creaky sets, clunky creatures and dodgy dialogue, let’s have a look at the book’s more complex aspects. Scientific concepts of travelling in space by bending space time are nicely explained. Then there are the more philosophical questions about dealing with life’s difficulties. The book presents various trials and tribulations, ranging from a girl getting picked on at school right up to dark forces threatening the universe. But then we are invited to imagine what life would be like if there were no troubles at all. The space travellers visit a distant planet where a disembodied brain regulates everything, including how little boys bounce balls. On this planet nothing goes wrong, there’s no doubt about what will happen next, and there are no painful decisions to make. And yet the resulting regimented society is hardly depicted as one in which you might want to live. In this context doubts and troubles are maybe not so bad. I was once again reminded of Dr Who – with that message that, hey kids, life may be confusing, and there’s no one to help you except an eccentric, oddly dressed English person with a sonic screwdriver and a space ship that looks like a defunct police phone box; but it’s better than marching about with the Daleks or the Cybermen.

So the ideas are interesting, though I became uneasy when they moved into more overtly religious territory. At one point a friendly alien tries to explain about an unseen, helpful force. After saying something about stars and light, the alien gives up and declares:

“Oh my child I cannot explain. This is just something you have to know or not know.”

The alien is not saying that a few more years at school, or even greater alien intelligence, would allow understanding of the subject under discussion. Okay, I accept that there are things that might be incomprehensible to me – lots of things actually. I had a rough ride with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and don’t mind admitting it. However, lack of understanding is different to saying that something is impossible to understand, and you just know about it or you don’t. That’s what’s called blind faith. Thinking about it, this is the resort of a certain type of leader we’ve seen much of lately, the type who wants to evade facts, because they are not helpful to the image of infallibility they wish to portray. If an alien came to me with claims of an authority that was impossible to challenge with pesky facts, then I, even as a mere earthling who had a tough time with Steven Hawking, would be suspicious.

Overall A Wrinkle In Time was an intriguing read, though, for me, more as an historical artefact than a book I really enjoyed. Its heart might have been in the right place, but my view of it was mixed.

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather By Sarah Pinsker – The Dark Side Of Textual Analysis

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather is a short story by Sarah Pinsker which, after appearing in Uncanny Magazine in 2021, went on to win the Nebula and Hugo awards for best short story.

This is a quirky piece, recreating an on-line message board for folk music fans, who are discussing a (fictional) English folk song called Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather. They consider the song in a number of different ways. There’s the categorisation approach, listing the various acts who have recorded the song – a list which delightfully includes Steeleye Span, Dolly Parton and The Grateful Dead – and the different versions each act performed. There’s the field research approach where a young student tries to find the actual village where the song might have been written, teasing out references to local landmarks. And then there’s the analytical approach where contributors consider metaphorical and allegorical angles, and get made fun of by Barrowboy, who keeps marking their posts as ‘a stretch’.

The thing about the song Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather, is the way the literal and the metaphorical collide. Hearts of oak is a familiar term, referring to bravery and resolution. But this song presents metaphor as reality. A creepy young woman seems to be ensnaring young men, removing their hearts, which she puts in a hollow oak tree, while placing an acorn in the chest where a heart used to be. So an unfortunate young man has a literal heart of oak. Not surprisingly he doesn’t last long in this state, and completely freaks out the local villagers, who execute the part-man-part-tree, before chopping down every oak they can find.

What, the contributors wonder, is this song all about? Is it about forest management, or the pain of love? However, recall the literalness in the song. The folk fan discussion mentions a professor who visited the village where the song might have been written, before vanishing. The young student contributor who follows in the professor’s footsteps by visiting the village, also seems to disappear. Members of the group comment that their field researcher has stopped posting, and emails to him bounce back. You’re thinking, has the creepy woman really got hold of a student and replaced his heart with an acorn! And then you think, hang on, that’s a stretch. Why did I even consider that?

So, maybe this whole piece is about interpretation. Confined to a folk music message board, it seems a rather niche discussion. But in a wider sense, you could easily suggest that naïve interpretations of old texts have caused real problems. Were some villagers persuaded to do something silly by misinterpreting an old song, just as literal interpretation of religious works, has led people down some highly unfortunate garden paths, where they continue to wander to this day? And yet is cataloguing a few relevant facts the only thing we can ever reasonably do with a text? Obviously there is more to talk about than that. Where does the point come where metaphor meets life in a real way?

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather is a fascinating, funny, unsettling and oddly moving study of textual interpretation, and how that esoteric activity, seemingly only of interest to a few enthusiasts on a message board, or in a seminar room at a university, is actually relevant outside those places too.

The Detectorists – Television Alchemy

The Detectorists is a BBC series which ran from 2014 to 2017, winning a BAFTA in 2015. I have just caught up with it. If you haven’t seen the series and want to avoid spoilers, watch first before reading on.

Written by Mackenzie Crook, the show tells the story of a group of metal detector enthusiasts, or ‘detectorists’ as they are more properly known, who pursue their hobby in the fictional town of Danebury in northern Essex.

The show is charming in its portrayal of a group of people who are looking for something. That something is ostensibly a gold hoard, the ultimate dream of a detectorist. In reality, the elusive ‘something’ they look for is bigger than gold. For example, there’s the feeling that the very act of searching through lovely countryside with friends is valuable in itself. In fact, focusing too much on gold as the end point can push the value it represents further away. Treasure hunters, who will do anything to find what they are looking for – known as night hawks – are the villains of the metal detector world.

After many days of finding ring pulls, buttons, old metal coat hangers, bits of scrap metal; after a day or two of actually finding gold and suffering the disappointment of discovering it does not bring the happy ever after; and after competitive detectorists come together as friends at a sunny afternoon rally where they all enjoy themselves, the mythic hoard still remains elusive. Our dreamers shoulder their detectors and start to walk away, looking forward to an evening at the pub. But there is something in their shouldering of arms which suggests this isn’t the end of the story. Before they begin a search, the detectorists tend to hold their detectors in the air, as a kind of salute. And at the end of a session, there is another inversion, pointing their devices upwards, in the opposite direction to where they would normally expect to find what they seek. And it is from this direction that reward seems to finally come. The story ends with a mischievous group of magpies appearing to acknowledge the detectorists for developing a better sense of value. These birds have been taking shiny gold coins from an old Roman hoard, and depositing them high in the boughs of a tree, above the field where the final detector rally is held. Right at the end of the closing episode, when it seems the rally hasn’t turned up the hoped-for great discovery, and no one really minds – at that point the magpies throw their gold coins to the ground.

The Detectorists is a heart-warming series, funny, gentle and thoughtful, suggesting there are as many ways to find gold as there are days to search for it. You can even find it watching television.

The Good Soldier By Ford Maddox Ford – A Good Soldier On A Bad Day

The Good Solider, by Ford Maddox Ford, published in 1915, sits you down beside a cottage fireside, where quiet American millionaire, John Dowell tells you ‘the saddest story I have ever heard’. This is the story of Dowell’s relationship with his wife Florence, and a couple they meet at a German health spa, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. Outwardly it’s all properness and polite chit chat, as might be expected in the presence of three powerful social drivers towards orderly conduct – John’s old-money wealth, Edward’s position as a British army officer, and Leonora’s Catholicism.

But beneath the respectable surface there’s complete chaos. Where to start? Just to give you a flavour of what lurks beneath – Florence pretends to be an invalid, so that she gets the material benefits of a marriage with John Dowell, without the downside of a physical relationship with him. While Dowell acts as a dutiful husband, looking after an apparently sick wife, Florence continues to indulge her sensual tastes with raffish artists or burly Army officers, like Edward Ashburnham. And Edward, as well as pursuing an affair with Florence, has relationships with other women at the spa, wives of fellow officers, and the Spanish mistress of a grand duke. Dowell describes the whole, sorry history in a fittingly rambling, conversational, non-chronological style where it’s difficult to get a clear idea of what’s going on.

At first, I might have been thinking that Ford Maddox Ford had set himself a little challenge – take conventions or institutions that people associate with order and reduce them to a pile of smouldering rubble. 1915 was a tumultuous time. Religious certainties were falling away with the advance of science. Society was convulsed by a terrible world war. In this context, it might not be surprising if a writer decided to build a novel around traditional pillars of respectable behaviour, and then demolish them.

Assuming total destruction was the aim, and an aim well-achieved, what is there left to do as you stand in the smoking ruins? I suppose the only thing left would be to rebuild. And there is a kind of moral reconstruction in The Good Soldier. While the story is very much about good things hiding rottenness, it’s also about apparently rotten things hiding virtue. Edward’s conduct might not appear becoming, but his carry-ons stand in contrast to the Catholic outlook on relationships, where ‘being married or not married is like being alive or dead’. In the face of such fundamentalism, Edward can seem sympathetically human.

I found myself recalling a few lines from Oscar Wilde:

“A man cannot always be estimated by what he does. He may keep the law, and yet be worthless. He may break the law and yet be fine.”

Oscar Wilde, of course, served time in prison for a crime that, outside totalitarian or religiously fundamentalist countries, no longer exists. A crime which might not be a crime is an apt description of the moral world of The Good Soldier. The confusion is painful, but if we are looking for something good to come out of moral collapse, I would suggest that Ford Maddox Ford, while not promoting a 1960s free-love, tune-in, drop-out society, does present confusion as being a more likely source of tolerance and justice than blind certainty. Secular literature is characteristically more about questions than answers, and after reading The Good Soldier you might find yourself tending more towards forgiveness than judgement.

The Man Who Died Twice By Richard Osman – Scrabble Chips Are Worth More Than Diamonds

The Man Who Died Twice is Richard Osman’s 2021 novel about a group of Kent retirement home residents who enjoy solving murders. The book sold over 144,000 copies in its first three days.

It has often struck me how popular murder is, with readers in general, but with older readers in particular. My daughter often looks after the secondhand book stall at a local market. Many of her customers are retired, and their preference for crime and murder easily outstrips their interest in anything else. And yet, this age group also tend to vote for the ‘law-and-order’ candidates in elections.

This is the kind of context of The Man Who Died Twice. People living in quiet circumstances look to shake things up with cosy crime. The atmosphere of a light-hearted murder mystery, however, combines with something much darker. The same people enjoying murder mystery fun, have to deal with the very real difficulties of their own situation; illness, physical vulnerability, and the sadness of their world passing away. Death hangs over the book, simply in the sense that its main characters are elderly and frail. That has an odd effect on the idea of jeopardy. Somehow the nearness of death in these people’s lives takes the sting out of it. The threat posed by gangsters becomes something of a joke. ‘Death be not proud,’ the poet John Donne wrote in one of his sonnets, and I thought of those lines reading The Man Who Died Twice.

This isn’t a John Le Carré novel. Richard Osman is a television presenter not a former member of the secret services. The plot, despite murders with some gruesome details, and a mugging with very real and unpleasant consequences, is hard to take seriously. At one point, elderly sleuth Joyce Meadowcroft, has to remind herself that she is involved with real criminals and not pretend ones. The criminals she deals with can never quite stop being characters in a farce, which is really the point. There is a pervasive sense that, in the end, no danger is as substantial as it might seem, with, as I suggested, the proximity of death ironically providing this feeling. At one point, Joyce uses a green felt bag that usually contains Scrabble chips to hide millions of pounds worth of diamonds. Criminals will do anything, shoot anyone, to get hold of a handful of sparkly rocks. But how valuable are diamonds to someone nearing the end of their life? Scrabble chips will probably be more precious, because they make possible a fun game to play with friends. And with mortality looming, fun, friends and Scrabble are better things to live for, than diamonds someone might want to kill for.

This is a warm, funny, moving and complex book. I’m not talking about complex in the plot sense – which has the requisite twists and turns – but complex in the way it deals with issues of ageing, danger and security. I think the sensitive treatment of these things lies behind the book’s success; or at least lay behind my enjoyment and admiration of it.

The Golden Bowl By Henry James – #longsentences

The Golden Bowl is Henry James’s 1904 novel, about wealthy American art collector, Adam Verver and his daughter, Maggie. They both have marriages arranged by their friend Fanny Assingham. For the daughter, Fanny supplies Amerigo, a financially challenged Italian prince of impeccable social credentials. For widower Adam, there is Charlotte Stant, a beautiful, accomplished, widely travelled young woman, former girlfriend of the prince, who only avoided marrying him because she did not have the fortune that his position required.

Charlotte’s job is to handle boring, administrative stuff while her husband gets on with being artistic. The prince becomes part of the Verver art collection, hanging around in fine clothes, looking decorative, and conducting urbane conversations at parties. Both Amerigo and Charlottle get bored in their stifling roles, and end up rekindling their love affair. These events are accompanied by a detailed account of the interior lives of the main characters, alongside a nuanced study of value in people, art and morals.

This is a brief description of a book which has nothing brief about it. Many hundreds of pages are covered in very long sentences. These sentences will probably dictate how you feel about The Golden Bowl. In deciding whether James’s ornate prose is good or not, it might be worth remembering that The Golden Bowl is about how we value things. Adam Verver is very confident in his judgment as an art collector. Items are good or bad. He would not be the sort to acknowledge that fashions change, and what is good today may be bad tomorrow. In 1904, long, complicated sentences were a sign of quality literature. By the middle of the century, George Orwell was busy advising that if a word could be cut it should be cut, and Ernest Hemingway was writing to his editor about the eternal value of the succinct:

‘It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.’ 

Ernest Hemingway wrote many true things but I don’t think this is one of them. The Gettysburg Address may be short, but that does not mean that people have always valued Hemingway-like brevity. As Edward Karak points out in Refract Magazine, George Washington’s inaugural address from 1789 has 315 words over five sentences. Barack Obama’s inaugural address from 2009 also runs for five sentences, but they only contain 89 words. People prefer brevity in their writing now. Fashions have changed. 

So as fashions change do we gain or lose? Short sentences can express a point better than long ones, except maybe where the writer seeks to convey a situation which isn’t merely about getting to the point. The Golden Bowl is suspicious of snappy, clear cut positions. Adam Verver sees things in black and white, whether that’s people, or works of art. They are all judged and filed away. Ironically you could say that in many ways, modern trends in writing lend themselves to an Adam Verver outlook. People go on Twitter and write a briefly stated opinion. There is only time to be right or wrong. There is much judging.

Long sentences might have a different potential. It’s not that long sentences are necessarily more deep and meaningful. Often they can sound significant without actually saying very much, and I wasn’t even close to admiring every sentence in The Golden Bowl. This is not a book to read when you’re tired. However, over time the effect of this unfashionable prose was beguiling. There’s a wonderful section where Amerigo stands on the terrace at Matcham House on a lovely morning, enjoying the view towards Gloucester, and waiting for a furtive meeting with Charlotte. Lugubrious sentences describe house and vista. The scene has no meaning beyond itself. It is a beautiful morning and that is enough. The lengthy sentences are part of that luxury of just enjoying something for its own sake. There is no point to get to. I thought these sentences really were beautiful, not because they necessarily had a depth that we have lost, but because they had an ease that we have ceased to value. They described something that could be judged as good, like a timeless sculpture of ancient pedigree, while also remaining a fleeting thing, disappearing even at the moment of appreciation. That contrast, well suited to the ornate prose, is really where the book’s quality lay for me.

I would suggest that reading The Golden Bowl is like staying at a lovely country house, which would never get planning permission today. Sometimes you sit at dinner staring at a bewildering selection of fruit knives, asparagus forks and bouillon spoons, wishing for something you could eat with your hands. At other times, you wander on the terrace and enjoy the beautiful expression of a lost society, which, in its contrasts with our own, has much to teach us.