The Struggle To Write, From Fever Pitch To The Sol Majestic

I decided to be a writer in the summer of 1986. Writing wasn’t a new idea. It had been there in the background, through prospective, variously unrealistic, astronaut, fireman, air traffic controller and musician phases. As a keen undergraduate, I wrote two plays, which nobody would stage. Then, after finishing university, what had long been a vague idea hardened into a decision. My parents were worried. This writing plan was sucking motivation away from committing to something more sensible. Employers love it when they feel that you are only doing their stupid job while you get on with something else.

I tried not to let doubts derail my determination, but I wouldn’t be human if there weren’t days when this writing plan seemed like total madness. My early efforts coincided with a long term admiration for Nick Hornsby’s Fever Pitch, which tells the story of a struggling writer who loves Arsenal football club. There is a passage in that book which haunted me, describing a player called Gus Caesar, who had a famously difficult career at Arsenal as a nervous centre back. After all these years it gives me the shivers to read those paragraphs again…

Think about it. At school he must have been much, much better than his peers, so he gets picked for the school team, and then some representative side, South London Boys or what have you; and he’s still better than anyone else in the team, by miles, so the scouts come to watch, and he’s offered an apprenticeship not with Fulham or Brentford, but with the mighty Arsenal…. To get where he did, Gus Caesar clearly had more talent than nearly everyone in his generation… and it still wasn’t quite enough… Gus must have known he was good, just as any pop band who has played the Marquee know they are destined for Madison Square Garden and an NME front cover and just as any writer who has sent off a completed manuscript to Faber and Faber knows that he is two years away from a Booker. You trust that feeling with your life… and it doesn’t mean anything at all.

Gus Caesar gave me pause – it would be foolish to deny it. But for some reason, I kept writing and hoping. And so, many years later, we come to the book I have just finished reading, The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz. At the end of this bizarre sci fi novel set in a space station restaurant, there’s an epilogue where Ferrett describes how he wrote page one on the day he nearly gave up writing. During a twenty year writing career, he had completed seven novels and numerous short stories. All he had to show for it was a novella which had been nominated for a prize, and a collection of sympathetic, personalised rejection letters from literary agents. Following the latest rejection of novel #7, our unhappy writer weeps in his basement, holing up there so that his wife doesn’t have to witness his degradation. At this critical moment it is clear he would have to start a novel immediately, or never write again. Ferrett’s desperate, unplanned first page eventually became The Sol Majestic – describing the growing pains of Kenna, a young man with a family obligation to become a kind of guru. He is the son of parents who belong to a now fading group of spiritual advisers, who once made a living offering reassurance to worried political leaders and VIPs. They are hoping that Kenna will revive their fortunes.

Working in a space station restaurant kitchen, Kenna struggles with the expectations placed upon him, and the lack of any evidence that he has guru potential. But the book really works when his doubts become part of things proceeding in a reassuring way. There’s a scene, for example, where Kenna and young chef trainee Benzo are trying to master the preparation of a tricky consommé – a clear soup. Over and over again they try and fail to make a perfect, crystal clear consommé. After hundreds of attempts, progress finally comes by trying something other than diligent attention to head chef Paulius’s recipe. The youngsters start to experiment with changes or additions of their own. In doing so they eventually discover exactly why the head chef has set down each step as he did. They come back to the original recipe with a wider perspective on cooking, which allows them to finally get the consommé right. This soupy parable suggests that instead of looking for an easy recipe for success, doubt and confusion can themselves offer a more secure path to achievement.

I am not a published writer like Ferrett Steinmetz. After decades of writing, I am in my own basement, with my own collection of sympathetic personalised rejection letters from agents, and a first place in a short story competition. It isn’t clear whether this will ever turn into something more substantial. But The Sol Majestic came out of a basement like this, offering reassurance to all those who are trying to do something that requires belief. Doubts are ok. They can even help.

It wasn’t clever plotting or exciting action which made The Sol Majestic for me, it was a sense of thoughtful generosity. The Sol Majestic is a soup of a book, with a warm, pungent, comforting and complex flavour, which Ferrett offers readers, who sit in their basements, hoping for whatever it is they are hoping for. And relaxing there, eating soup, you look back and realise success is not a recipe with preordained demands. Out of interest I had another look at the career of Gus Caesar. Wikipedia told me his career at Arsenal was difficult, but he spent five years there, before going on to a happier time as a journeyman footballer with other teams. At Colchester United and non-league Dagenham, he actually seemed to enjoy himself, He was celebrated at these teams, both for a string of good performances and his nice bloke personality. Gus Caesar made a living from what he did and in his own way found people who valued his contribution. Any writer would be grateful for that. What is success? Winning the World Cup? Winning the Booker? In that case hardly anyone ever succeeds. Maybe it is better to live your life by different rules, enjoying what you do and seeing what happens.

The Morning Show

I’ve been watching The Morning Show, Apple TV’s new serial about an American breakfast television show going through a MeToo crisis. I felt moved to write about this show after the fifth episode, and have updated today having seen the finale.

Writing this has felt odd. I only have Apple TV because it was free with my new phone, and only gave The Morning Show a quick look out of curiosity. Writing about MeToo is not something that appeals, and morning television is not something I ever watch. And yet here I am watching ten episodes in five days, and writing about stuff that makes me deeply uncomfortable.

So, the thing is, The Morning Show is complex and nuanced, at a time when many people have given up the hard work of dealing with complexities. The mood of the time is one of looking for clear lines and easy answers – boundaries on maps between countries, rules of behaviour, the attitudes of crazy political leaders who give the impression of strength without any of the substance of competence. Good fiction is not about straight lines, so it might not seem to have a place at the moment. Except that, yes, it does have a place, especially now. As I say, The Morning Show is complex. Instead of presenting a simple message, it brings lots of different messages into dramatic conflict. It reminds me, in fact, of something my Shakespeare tutor said to me back at university. She said that the real complexity of Shakespeare lies not in some deep meaning, but in the fact that he is not actually saying anything. Just sit with that for a moment… I certainly did when I heard it. It took a while to accept that the world’s most famous writer has nothing definite to impart to earnest students studying his work. All you can do, according to my tutor, is “maintain the paradoxes”. With Shakespeare, no position is final, no opinion is perfect, no wisdom will come over as wisdom in all situations. Shakespeare would not have been a campaigner, a protestor, or a fundamentalist. He would not have marched with placards, or sprayed buildings with paint, or chained himself to railings. For him, no position, no cause, holds the certainty that would drive him to such action. There is always some civilising worm of doubt, some contradiction that comes along to get in the way of righteousness.

The same is true of The Morning Show. The relationships it portrays are complex and multifaceted. Characters look different at different moments, like a metallic paint that changes colour depending on how the light catches it. You judge, only to have your judgement questioned. You want the truth revealed and yet see all the problems releasing the truth might create for everyone, not just the people who acted improperly. And what comes out of that in the end? A kind of hopeless fence sitting? A lack of will to change things and make them better? I don’t think so. I think the end result is an increased capacity for empathy. Good fiction allows us to see different points of view. The Morning Show absolutely does not tell us that all behaviour is fine, but neither does it draw straight lines where such certainties do not exist. Good fiction is not a sermon or a text book. In the end it doesn’t tell us anything, except to demonstrate how people work, and so increase the chance that we may find a way to understand and empathise with each other. If we are to act well towards each other, it does not come from codes and rules which change over time, but from a basic understanding of how others feel, allowing us to act in a sympathetic way. The profound failings of people in The Morning Show – and believe me they are profound – are essentially failings of empathy, of failing to respect people as you would want to be respected yourself. That’s the crime that leads to the terrible denouement in the final episode.

So I admire The Morning Show’s handling of difficult themes. I also admire the slick production values, use of music, and flashes of humour, believe it or not. As Guardian critic Stuart Heritage says, The Morning Show is funnier than it should be. I recommend it.

To Boldly Go Where Fiction Has Been Before – Red Shirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts by John Scalzi presents the odd scenario of a cable TV sci-fi show, projected through a hole in space and time, giving rise to parallel future events. Now just go with it, but for reasons not really explained, the dodgy plot lines of The Chronicles Of The Intrepid dictate what happens to a real space ship called Intrepid hundreds of years later. Since the driving force is a television show, Intrepid’s adventures are shaped by the demands of drama rather than rationality.

“Every battle is designed for maximum drama… This is what happens when the Narrative takes over. Things quit making sense. The laws of physics take a coffee break. People stop thinking logically and start thinking dramatically.”

Now this whole idea of a future powered by a Star Trek rip off, might seem extremely unlikely. But before we get too dismissive, let’s remember the past, where leaders and politicians, in the interests of a heroic narrative, have often sent rationality on repeated and lengthy coffee breaks. Much of what we know as history is less a succession of facts, more a narrative designed to support political considerations of the present day. Just a few examples – Hitler made up stories of persecuted German minorities to get World War 2 going. Churchill, in retaliation spun a stirring tale in which 1940s Britain, a dour place, short of money, remains a superpower where Henry V is continually winning the Battle of Agincourt. And as of late 2019, a prime minister carries on with Churchill’s narrative, which makes him look like a strong leader, at the cost of creating destructive trouble and drama in our relationship with Europe where none need exist. Looking at the past and present we see storytelling impinging on real life all the time. There is no reason to think that the future will be any different.

So the idea of Redshirts does have its own veracity. It might be unlikely that present day television could directly influence events hundreds of years hence, or that characters could freak out their LA screenwriters by taking on a life of their own, but reality and drama do exist in an odd relationship. The stories which people find compelling might be corny, unlikely, over sentimental and confusing, qualities which all apply to Redshirts at times, but they are still powerful enough to frequently win out over mere facts.

In summary, this is an ambitious book, looking at the various ways fiction and real life collide. It is generally written in an attractive, humorous style, although there is a strange approach to dialogue. There are dialogue tags – as in, Dahl said, Duvall said – after virtually every line of speech which makes for a stilted feel. Also, given that the novel’s characters are causing their author a bit of a breakdown by taking on a life of their own, some of them are not clearly drawn. They all tend to communicate in the same quippy style, which sometimes makes it hard to tell one from another. But apart from these reservations, I would recommend Redshirts as an interesting and amusing meditation on fiction.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Writer

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reminded me of a Harry Potter book – in that they’re both about apparently ordinary people living hidden lives. These thoughts of Harry Potter seemed relevant as the book opened, with scenes at a public school, where lonely new boy, Bill Roach, notices the arrival of a mysterious teacher. Children are imaginative. Some picture themselves as wizards or witches in a world of uncomprehending muggles. Others might believe they are secret agents, on a mission which their uninspiring fellow pupils know nothing about.

After the opening school chapter, we launch into a spy story, the central character, George Smiley, described as the sort of man Bill Roach might become as an adult. This description served as another hint that, in this Russian doll of a book, I was reading the boy’s story, where he imagines his future self pursuing a Russian mole working for British intelligence.

The title, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, of course, comes from a nursery rhyme – tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor… This title sums up much of the novel’s subtlety. There’s a suggestion once again of that link with a childhood game, and of the way our roles in life, doled our arbitrarily in the words of the rhyme, are misleading labels for something more complex. After all, the book presents spies as indistinguishable from ordinary people. In fact spies are better at their job if they are indistinguishable from ordinary people. There’s also a nod in the rhyme to the interchangeability of roles between one side and the other, a situation of double agents who seem to be the embodiment of one system, when they also working for the enemy.

The job of writer isn’t in the Tinker Tailor title, but it could come just after Spy. Spies are often referred to as watchers in the book, and what is a writer if he or she is not a watcher, working for their own little agency? In this case the intelligence offered us is not perfect. Point of view flits about which can be confusing. The portrayal of women is hardly progressive. Nevertheless this was a dossier received with much interest at my own agency.

Main Street, A Journey Through America Past And Present

I didn’t know where to start a review of this book, so I decided to start at the beginning. The Puritan settlers are on the Mayflower sailing for the New World. What sort of main streets would they eventually have in their towns? Well, these people are famously seeking freedom, so it is unlikely they would be big fans of someone telling them how to build their town. On the other hand, they are not seeking freedom in the sense of running through meadows with flowers in their hair. Puritans are religious fundamentalists. They are looking for the freedom to be just as fundamental as they want to be.

So come forward a few hundred years and what do we find? We find a book about the odd, contradictory towns that evolved in America, trying to express freedom and fundamentalism at the same time. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, published in 1920, tells the story of Carol Milford, a clever and ambitious young woman, who at college harbours dreams of a career as a town planner. However, she marries a doctor, who persuades her to settle with him in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. Gopher Prairie is about as far from town planning as you can imagine. This place has grown up piecemeal, as a centre for surrounding farms, where farmers can sell their produce, access a few basic services, and buy some essentials. The very fact that the town evolved in this unplanned manner, is supposedly an expression of the freedom of the American way. And yet there is also plenty of Puritanism about Gopher Prairie, curtain twitching, moralising and judgement. You can only be individual here in a narrowly accepted manner. If you are really out of the ordinary, a fey young man with artistic ambitions, or a young woman with new social ideas, the town’s idea of freedom will probably not extend to you. Ironically there is a sense of standardisation about this town which supposedly grew up in such a freewheeling rugged, individual, American manner. Carol discovers that ramshackle Gopher Prairie is virtually identical to many other towns in the American Midwest, as though they had all been laid out to some standard scheme.

Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street is a long meditation on this peculiarly American combination of freedom and rigidity. It’s a big, sprawling book with no discernible plot, like a soap opera; but it’s lack of plot seems carefully planned. It’s not the most obviously exciting read, but it finds danger, excitement and drama hidden in the every day. There are a lot of scenes in kitchens, involving gossip, scandal, cooking, and the odd amputation of the injured limbs of farmers.

There were times when I wondered why I was wading through this interminable description of small town life, but I kept on going and was glad I did. Main Street is a good way to understand America and Americans, especially today as the country struggles with leaders of government who display aspects of dictatorship and chaotic incompetence, in lethal combination.

Ghost Quartet, Boulevard Theatre, Soho, 23rd November 2019

Written by David Malloy and first performed in New York in 2014, Ghost Quartet in a former age might have been described as an oratorio – musical storytelling on profound topics with an orchestra and soloists – though in the case of Ghost Quartet, orchestra and soloists double up and do both jobs. The concept album is perhaps the modern successor to this idea, and Ghost Quartet is indeed a kind of theatrical concept album. I was intrigued by the theatre poster, which by accident or design, mimics the cover of the famous album, Forever Changes, released by Love in 1967. So, anyway, oratorio or concept album, the idea is you have a sequence of songs held together by a kind of story.

Now, the story linking things up is not usually straight forward, and this is certainly the case with Ghost Quartet. There is a bizarre, time-travelling narrative involving, as far as I can tell, an astronomer who cheats on his wife with her sister, leading to the slighted wife vowing supernatural revenge on both husband and sister. This all plays out with reference to, amongst other things, the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the jazz of Theolonius Monk, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and Arthur’s C. Clarke’s 2001 A Space Oddity. I would advise not worrying too much about the story making sense. Can you tell me the story from Ziggy Stardust, for example? And if you can’t, does it matter? The story is a kind of chandelier where the bits that really stand out are all the lights hanging from it, rather than the frame.

The lights hanging from the chandelier of Ghost Quartet illuminated the theme of existence, of substance set against illusion. The show was full of ghosts and spirits. Here are a few examples:

The light of stars which has taken so long to get to our eyes, that the stars that made it don’t exist any more. The way people change so that a person can all but disappear even though they don’t do anything as dramatic as dying. Actors walking about on a stage portraying people who are not real. Audience members crossing the audience/actor divide by taking part in the production- I got to do some percussion with an egg shaker. The spirits handed out by the cast in the form of snifters of whisky, a drink which can make the clear lines of consciousness go a bit fuzzy.

By the end of the show, once you’ve drunk your whiskey and played your egg shaker, you might conclude it’s not strictly necessary to be dead to be a ghost, and not actually compulsory to be alive to be a real person.

Ghost Quartet was fun, moving, exciting and contemplative. It’s a modern oratorio, but whereas the oratorio in its original form was confined to churches and overtly religious themes, this is a concept album for everyone.

The Gift of an Aran Jumper

Me, wearing one of my grandmother’s Aran jumpers

My brother has been doing some research into our family history. It seems that both my mother’s parents had forebears who came from the north coast of Devon. In the nineteenth century members of their respective families crossed the Bristol Channel to Swansea, where they met and married.

Coincidentally, we recently took a family holiday in north Devon. During a visit to the village of Clovelly, I wandered down the impossibly steep, cobbled main street and ducked into a whitewashed house near the old fishing harbour. Here a talk was in progress on the esoteric subject of Aran jumpers. A local was telling us that each village along this coast once had its own style of heavy woollen jumper. I assumed the design on these garments was simply decorative. How quaint that each village should associate itself with a knitted pattern. Forget quaint. It turned out that part of the reason fishermen wore these jumpers was as a means of identification, so that if they drowned at sea, there was a chance they could be taken home.

Later, after doing some background reading, it seemed that the Clovelly local might have dramatised a little for the sake of tourists. You can’t say there was an official policy of wearing Aran jumpers as means of identification in case of drowning. What you can say is that, in an instinctive kind of way, these articles of clothing made by local women to similar patterns, were a powerful link with home. This was true figuratively, and perhaps even literally in the event of disaster.

Lynton, Devon, home to ancestors of my grandparents

The thing is, when my two brothers and I were young, my grandmother supplied us with a steady stream of beautifully made Aran jumpers. I now wonder whether they might have represented a tradition handed down from north Devon ancestors. My grandmother was following in the footsteps of women who tried to protect their menfolk, even when they were out at sea. Their work kept the men warm on a dangerous journey, and also acted as a candle in a window, which would continue to offer guidance back, even if the worst were to happen. Why would I decide, leaving for university, to take two of my grandmother’s jumpers with me? I suppose they reminded me of home. Who knew that the home they recalled went all the way back to a Devon cottage on a stormy night.

Although I took those jumpers to university with me, it saddens me that I did not fully appreciate their gesture of love, not only from my grandmother, but also from generations of women who came before her. The world has changed and nowadays women as well as men have a better chance of putting to sea, but it still moves me to feel that even as I was heading out of harbour, someone was trying to keep me warm and guide me home.

The Little Prince – Authors Are Not Little Gurus

The Little Prince opens with the author’s test to differentiate an enlightened child-like imagination from that of a serious-minded adult. This assessment involves a picture of a snake which has recently swallowed an elephant. Boring old adults, glancing at the narrow head and tail of the snake with a big lump in the middle, see a hat.

For me, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella gave rise to concerns about passing the snake test. How should I react to an odd story of a pilot who crash lands in the Sahara and meets a boy from outer space? This extraterrestrial boy reaches Earth via tiny asteroids variously populated by a king with no subjects, a drinker who drinks because he is ashamed of drinking, a business man setting about owning the stars, a vain man with no one to praise him but himself, a geographer who doesn’t know where anything is, and a lamp lighter who has to light and extinguish his lamps every few seconds on his minuscule world. The description of these characters might set me thinking about all kinds of topics, from materialism to the nature of power. The problem is, given the book’s fanciful tone, such an earnest reading seems wrong. It’s like failing the snake test and seeing a boring old hat. Conversely, seeing the book as nothing more than the hallucinogenic whimsy of an exhausted pilot probably wouldn’t be right either, bearing in mind that The Little Prince has sold hundreds of millions of copies, and enjoyed extensive critical appreciation devoted to its deeper meanings.

So what to do? One answer might be to view The Little Prince not as a work of spiritual guidance, but as a story, which is what it is. An author setting himself up as some kind of guru is always vulnerable to the fact that changing circumstances eventually make a nonsense of any advice. “See with your heart and not your eyes” is a famous bit of advice from The Little Prince. Well, yes I get the point, until I see people making emotional decisions when they would be better served acting rationally. This is where a story has an advantage over something more factual. A story in its fictional nature has a naturally light touch, offering a quiet and humane acknowledgement that any guidance it provides may have no substance at all.

This makes it hard to give a star rating on Amazon or Goodreads. Do I rate for good advice, or bad advice, or for no advice at all? I don’t know. As a purely personal kind of response I will give 4 stars to an interesting, quirky, funny and moving story.

Perfect Review Whatever

Perfect Sound Whatever is James Acaster’s account of his life in 2017, a year of stress, both personally and professionally, from which he took refuge in hundreds of albums released the previous year. As he accumulated these albums he built evidence for the humorous assertion that 2016 was the greatest year in music ever. But the humour hides a deadly serious intent to persuade you that 2016 really was the greatest year in music ever.

As chance would have it, I spent 2016 working my way through Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 albums of all time, a project culminating in a list of sixty favourite tracks posted on my blog. So I was always going to love the idea for Perfect Sound Whatever. But did I end up agreeing with this claim that 2016 was the greatest year in music? In answer I would like to mention the time when James has a late night snack in New York. He buys lasagna, heats it up, tucks in with a serving spoon and is disappointed. Later, drunk and desperate he turns to the now cold meal and discovers a magical transformation in its cold creaminess, with crispy bits around the edges. A few days after this gastronomic transfiguration, he tries to recreate the experience with another portion of the same lasagna, using the same oven and the same fridge, only to cook up a disgusting, chilly mess. The one variable in this experiment was the fact that James wasn’t drunk the second time. So, the moral of this tale is that there are two things to consider in judging the music of 2016 – the music and the person listening to it. James was going through a turbulent period in his life, and times of trouble can bring with them a kind of hypersensitivity. I recall very clearly listening to Jethro Tull’s Thick As A Brick when my father was seriously ill. Every tumbling note from Ian Anderson’s flute sounded like bird song. The Victorians used to say that hunger is the best sauce, and hunger for comfort is sometimes better than Hi-Fi when it comes to music. I think something similar happened to James. Sharpened awareness collided with a lot of good music, which turned out to be as delicious as that first serving of cold lasagna. But was that meal objectively delicious, or subjectively tasty? As George Harrison said in Savoy Truffle, “you know that what you eat you are, but what tastes sweet now turns so sour.”

So I don’t agree that 2016 was the best year in music ever. But my reservations don’t take away from James Acaster’s musical journey and what it meant to him. James, as most of us do at one time or another, felt lost and alone in 2017, and in those times music can be a saviour. From humanity’s earliest days, music has been a way of bringing people together, to work as a team. We see that in all kinds of music from sea shanties and marching tunes, to delirious sing-alongs with Blur at Glastonbury. Of course one lot of marchers can clash with another, so it makes sense to join not with one exclusive crew or marching band, but with the music of humanity in general; and James is very good at throwing himself across all kinds of musical frontiers. Along with hilarious accounts of wretched interactions with healthcare professionals, and disastrous dinner dates with sociopathic women, this musical eclecticism was the most attractive aspect of the book for me – a welcome antidote to the present political situation.

James was an occasionally grumpy, but mostly charming companion who thanked me for reading his book on its final page. The only thing I would suggest is that he is the sort of person who when in the grip of an enthusiasm is affronted if the world does not share his passion. There is a generosity here, and something more difficult, a sense that James’s experience should be everybody else’s. Perhaps the ability to go on your journey, whilst letting others go on theirs, is an equally generous approach. I think, to be fair, there is an acknowledgment of this in the book’s title, Perfect Sound Whatever, taken from a song by Jeff Rosenstock. A perfect sound can also be ordinary or imperfect. No one person, and no one time, has a monopoly on perfection.

Perfect Sound Whatever is an extremely funny and often moving book, with great suggestions if your music listening has become stale and in need of a shake up. I really enjoyed it.

The Nuances Of Seeing The World In Black And White

Terry Pratchett’s Dodger tells the story of a Victorian tosher, a practitioner of a now lost profession, which involved searching through London’s sewers for money or valuable items dropped in the streets above. The book is loosely based on historical reality, with our tosher hero meeting many famous Victorian celebrities – Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, the civil engineer Joseph Bazelgette – Pratchett taking historical liberties to get all of these people together at the same London house party.

I think the book was most interesting in those sections that make you think about truth. This sounds academic and high falutin’, but really is better thought of in the heated context of tabloid news. At one point, Dodger, trying to smarten himself up for a meeting with his new friend Charles Dickens, goes to a barber for a shave. Unfortunately he chooses Sweeney Todd of Fleet Street as his barber. Sweeney turns out to be a former soldier suffering from PTSD, who has killed a number of his clients. Dodger, realising that the man is deranged, relieves him of his razor just as the police arrive. Dodger sees that Sweeney is ill rather than evil, but Charles Dickens in his role as journalist, explains how a nuance-averse public likes to see the world in black and white. So when Dickens writes the incident up in The Morning Chronicle, Dodger becomes a hero to Sweeney’s villain.

Charles Dickens, of course, portrayed a character called the Artful Dodger in his novel Oliver Twist. The Artful Dodger lives with Fagin, a Jewish man who runs a group of youthful pickpockets. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger also lives with a Jewish man, the clever, artistic, cultured Solomon. So what’s going on there? Perhaps Pratchett’s quiet message is that the real Charles Dickens would have had to rewrite events somewhat for public consumption, just as he did in that imagined scene with Sweeney Todd. The real Dickens would have to make an ambivalent Dodger, who finds valuables people are silly enough to lose, into pickpocket Artful Dodger, who is much more clearly a criminal. The real Dickens might also have to work with a prejudiced, stereotypical view of Jewish people, so that Dodger’s Jewish mentor, a decent, kind and cultured man on the run from European prejudice, becomes miserly, sneaky Fagin.

This was the aspect of Dodger I found most interesting, the idea of truth filtered through the sort of writing that people will accept. Even the book’s modern narrative voice, seemingly immune to the prejudice of the past, has its limitations. This voice is far away from the events it describes, and muddles those events to get, for example, famous Victorians at the same party. At one point Buckingham Palace, seen through the eyes of light-fingered Dodger, becomes a “target rich environment,” a jarringly modern phrase. So this Pratchett narrative voice is just another point of view, not the truth.

I enjoyed all these thoughtful elements of the book. Less compelling was the plot, particularly in the second half, when it becomes a tale of derring-do in pursuit of justice and the love of a good woman. Overall, Dodger is a kind of Victorian melodrama meets modern YA adventure, infused with fascinating reflections on how people filter the world through what they read.