‘Let words be nice’ – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Treacle Walker’

[NB: this article assumes that you have read the book]

All writing, it might be said, works by synecdoche: the writer supplies the part and from it we infer the whole to fill the space the writer leaves. Alan Garner is a master of omission: what makes it onto the page is spare and lean and more effective for it; he often says less than we expect, yet we realise it is enough. In Treacle Walker what is left out is as important as what is put in: it is a book that plays with our assumptions, inviting us to make them yet forcing us to question them as the book goes on.

Take the opening line (which is also, incidentally, the last line, too): it is the cry of a rag-and-bone man. I am old enough to remember a rag-and-bone man with a flat horse-drawn cart, but that was over sixty years ago, before I started school. This suggestion that the story is set (apparently) some time in the middle of last century is confirmed by the passage of a steam engine, which for the boy Joe Coppock signals that it is mid-day, hence his nickname for the engine, Noony. Joe himself is like boys in the comics of my childhood, old-fashioned even then: he has a catapult (doubtless made from a Y-shaped stick) plays marbles and collects birds’ eggs and other things he chances on, which he keeps in his ‘museum’. He is in poor health and wears an eyepatch because he has a ‘lazy eye’.

When the rag-and-bone man’s cry is repeated, about half-way down the opening page, the line that follows is worth noting:

Quick, Joe. Now, Joe.

It is, I think, the sole instance of inner dialogue of any kind in the entire book; in a form that typically lends itself to introspection, the absence of any account of inner thoughts or feelings is remarkable. Apart from that one line, everything is outward. We see and hear only what is public: the things Joe sees and hears, what he and the others say. What we know of his feelings we infer from his speech and actions. We know nothing of his remembering, save that he once found a sheep’s shoulder blade in a molehill beside the railway.

The characters are few and they inhabit a sparse landscape simply named. There is a house, and visible from it a yard, several fields – Barn Croft, Pool Field, Big Meadow – and a track with a top and bottom gate and the railway line close by. Beyond these are trees, a bog and a heath. Apart from Joe the only other characters are the rag-and-bone man, Treacle Walker, and Thin Amren, the man in (and out of) the bog. To these we must add an incidental oculist and three characters from Knockout, the comic Joe reads, since at some point they intrude on the story: Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit, Whizzy the wizard and his Brit-basher sidekick.

At the outset, from this little that Garner provides, we are confident in assuming a great deal: we can place the story (roughly) in time – somewhere from Garner’s own childhood (he was born in 1934) up to, say, the late fifties; we know that there must be a school (which Joe presumably does not attend because of his ill-health) and equally there must be some adults who look after Joe, parent(s), grandparent(s) or other relatives; and of course there must be neighbours and likely a town somewhere for the train to come from as well as all the normal human activity of everyday life, such as eating and drinking – but none of that is actually mentioned.

The growing bewilderment that the reader feels as the book proceeds – just what is going on here? – is shared by Joe, who expresses it in exclamations of scornful disbelief and angry puzzlement (mostly variants on ‘daft, I call it’ which is what one of the characters in Knockout says at the end of every episode). He can barely understand a word that Treacle Walker says and frequently demands that he ‘give over’ or ‘leave off’. His first close encounter with him leads to a memorable exchange:

’You smell!’ ‘Not I, Joseph Coppock,’ said the man. ‘You smell that I stink. Let words be nice.’

This falls strangely on the ear – to stink is hardly ‘nice’ – till we remember that ‘nice’ can also mean ‘done with great care and exactness; accurate’ (as in ‘a nice distinction’). Treacle Walker is not admonishing Joe to speak pleasantly but precisely, to give proper heed to the use of words (and it is an admonition to the reader, too: pay attention to what is being said, here: do not cloud it with assumptions).

And those assumptions that we made so confidently at the outset are steadily undermined as the book goes on, just as Joe’s understanding of his own situation is repeatedly challenged by Treacle Walker’s questions, which he is seldom able to answer. This is nowhere better seen than in the episode with the oculist in part V and what follows in part VIII when Joe is asked about it. Part V begins abruptly, without preamble or forewarning and is the only change of location in the whole tale:

‘Come in, Joe,’ the man said.

Joe went into the room and sat on the chair.
‘How are things?’
‘All right.’
‘Let’s have a shufti, then.’

Our initial puzzlement gives way to understanding: we know already that Joe has a ‘lazy eye’ and when the man starts giving Joe a range of tests that are evidently familiar to him (‘The usual drill. Keep your eye on the dot.’) we realise that this must be a regular visit to the oculist. The two are on easy terms with one another, even when the visit takes a rather strange turn (when Joe looks at the chart with his good eye he reads out what later turns out to be a Latin inscription)

‘Not funny, old son.’
‘What isn’t?’
‘It doesn’t help if you faff around.’
‘I’m not faffing.’

However, when Joe later shows Treacle Walker the paper on which the oculist made him write down what he saw with his good eye, Walker’s line of questioning is strange and Joe’s answers stranger still:

‘Did you write this, Joseph Coppock?’
‘I was having my eyes tested –’
‘When they were being tested. And the man said –’
‘What man?’
‘The man in the room.’

‘Which room?’

‘Where I was having my eyes tested!’
‘Where was the room?’ said Treacle Walker.
‘It was – there,’ said Joe.
‘Who was the man?’

‘The man testing my eyes! Give over!’

‘I am but asking the question,’ said Treacle Walker. ‘Who was the man?’
‘He was – I dunno.’

Joe’s inability to furnish any specific detail (and his mounting irritation at it) is painfully reminiscent of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s or a similar dementia: his answers are plausible, yet lack substance. As readers, we feel that Joe ought to remember: he and the man clearly knew one another from the way they talked; he was evidently the oculist, and the room was his consulting room, where Joe must have been before. But we have never actually been told who the man was, where the room was, or how Joe got there; and Joe does not seem to know either. We begin to wonder at the validity of our inferences.

As it happens, the episodes between the meeting with the oculist and the interrogation above have already given the reader ample cause to question the frame of reference we assumed at the start. Joe goes out in pursuit of the cuckoo, experiences what seems to be a time-slip, then ends up in conversation with a man who rises out of the bog and introduces himself as Thin Amren (he already knows Joe’s name). In the next part, set back in the house, Stonehenge Kit emerges from the pages of Knockout and passes through the room, shortly pursued by Whizzy and his sidekick; betweentimes, Joe has climbed into the comic frame from which Kit emerged into a shaft which seems to echo the chimney of the house (later identified by Treacle Walker as ‘Axis Mundi’ ‘the way between… the earth, the heavens and the sapient stars’). All this has been effected with the aid of his good eye, now beglamoured with the ointment from the jar that Treacle Walker traded for Joe’s old pajamas and Joe accidentally smeared on his eyelid. Viewed with his other eye, all seems as usual.

What happens to us as we read is similar to what Joe experiences: our vision alters; our everyday assumptions about where and when we are fall away, and we find ourselves in a stark, mythic landscape where what you see is all there is. We already have a sense, early on, that Treacle Walker is no ordinary rag-and-bone man (if indeed there ever was a such a thing). His style of speech recalls another figure of children’s literature, Cole Hawlings, the Punch-and-Judy man from John Masefield’s The Box of Delights (and indeed the chest of treasures from which Joe picks his humble pot could well be termed a box of delights). Cole is a magician and a time-traveller; we begin to wonder if Treacle Walker might not be cast in a similar mould (he also recalls the packman John Turner in Garner’s Thursbitch and echoes the shaman-like figures that occur in Strandloper and Boneland).

Of course, the folkloric, mythic tale has been there from the start, albeit submerged at first (like Thin Amren in his bog) by our conventional assumptions about a story involving a (relatively) modern schoolboy who lives in a world of steam locomotives and comics. Its general form is that the hero (Joe) is selected by passing an initiation test (choosing the pot) for which he is rewarded with magical gifts (the donkey stone and glamourie or second sight) to aid him in the task that he is set, which is to put the world to rights from its disrupted state: ‘what’s in is out and what’s out is in’ – which applies equally to the comic characters, Whizzy and Brit Basher, who have escaped the pages of Knockout into Joe’s world and to Thin Amren, who has wakened from his dreaming in the bog and got up.

What precipitates this disruption is unclear. The first portent that all is not well comes after Joe has invited the rag-and-bone man in and asks him his name (names are potent in traditional tales)

‘can you not talk sense? What’s your name?’

Outside, the iron ring handle of the door banged on the wood three slow times, sounding through the house.

[Joe looks out the window]

‘there’s nobody there,’ he said.
‘Then no body wishes to come in,’ said the man.

Bang. Bang, Bang.

(note the nice distinction between Joe’s ‘nobody’ and the man’s ‘no body’)

We sense Joe’s rising panic as the ominous knocks are repeated a second time: ‘what must I do?’ he asks and on the third repetition he opens the door and what spills in, out of the Spring day, is night, vividly portrayed as ‘a sheet of darkness, flapping from wall to wall.’ The sheet becomes more animate with each verb: dropped, ruckled, fell, humped, shrieked, reared. Notably, it does not go up the chimney, but escapes out under the eaves as ‘on the floor snow melted to tears.’

This incursion of night is plainly a harbinger of something and also serves as a portentous overture, like a thunderclap, before the rag-and-bone man reveals his name; whether it might be more again is an idea that comes with rereading.

It is the next part that seems more obviously to set the mythic tale in motion: when Joe borrows Treacle Walker’s bone flute (‘I made it from a man that sang… it is the way for him to sing now’) and has a go, he produces a cuckoo’s call that is answered from across the valley. This elicits a curious response from Treacle Walker,

‘Unfound bones sing louder. Draw a pail of water.’

We wonder at the first part (whose bones are unfound?) but are distracted by the second and what follows: Joe is commanded to ‘stone the step’ with the donkey stone, in order to ‘keep the house’, evidently an apotropaic measure to ward off evil incursions – in traditional tales, supernatural creatures can only cross the threshold if they are invited; it is notable that Treacle Walker always seeks Joe’s permission to do so.

Perhaps prompted by the cuckoo’s call, Treacle Walker falls into a melancholic reverie, reciting a curious verse:

‘Iram, biram, brendon, bo,
Where did all the children go?
They went to the east. They went to the west.
They went where the cuckoo has its nest.’ *

Joe wants a cuckoo’s egg for his collection, but as he is unaware of their peculiar laying habits (a fact that amuses Thin Amren greatly later in the tale) the ominous note struck by that last line would pass him by.

The coming (or summoning) of the cuckoo builds the climax of the book: each time Joe hears it, it is nearer. When (on page 99) its call is first set down directly, it is repeated seven times, and we are at once reminded of that other guise in which cuckoos appear, sounding the time in a cuckoo clock. In the final confrontation, on p144, the cuckoo calls eleven times – the eleventh hour – then further down the page, just before Joe acts, it calls thirteen times – not only an unlucky number, but a signal that the times are out of joint; chaos is come (and perhaps, who knows, there is also a nod to Orwell: It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen).

As our assumptions are stripped away, we begin to wonder (with Joe) what his situation actually is; the clearest clue comes in his secound encounter with Thin Amren. Joe asks how long he has been in the bog; Thin Amren says ‘From then till now. And you?’

‘What about me?’
‘How long have you been up in the fine chimney house?’
‘Always. I live there.’
‘And how is “always”?’
‘It’s – always,’ said Joe.

This recalls the earlier interrogation about the oculist: Joe seems unable to answer a straightforward question; while his first response is just what a child might say, his inability to quantify it is striking: he must, after all, know what age he is; it is one of the things that children make particular note of.

Thin Amren recasts the question in a different form by asking Joe to consider an eddy in the water, or ‘whirligig’ as he calls it:

‘He doesn’t move. But water, she goes by. Then what’s whirligig?’
‘I dunno. It just – is,’ said Joe.
‘Then what is brook?’ said Thin Amren.
‘It’s the brook.’
‘And brook was here yesterday,’ said Thin Amren. ‘and she’ll be here tomorrow. Whirligig stays. Though he’s not the same water. Then what is yesterday? What today? What tomorrow? Whirligig, what is he? What is brook?’
‘Oh, dry up,’ said Joe.
‘That’s the last thing I’ll be doing,’ said Thin Amren. ‘I asked a question. Whirligig neither asks nor cares.’

The last remark suggests an identification that is later made explicit, that Whirligig is Joe from Thin Amren’s point of view ( or sub specie aeternitatis, if you prefer). We have just been given an elegant statement of the problem of identity: how is it that I suppose myself to be the same person that was born sixty odd years ago and has undergone all manner of experiences in between? There is (I think it is accurate to say) actually nothing of me that persists for all that time: cells are perpetually renewed. Am I not, then, as David Hume puts it,

’nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’

– in a word, a whirligig?

But it is in the next exchange that we receive some confirmation of what we may already have begun to suspect. Joe asks Thin Amren if he knows Treacle Walker, to which he responds,

‘Me know that pickthank psychopomp?’

Now, a ‘pickthank’ is an ingratiating flatterer, but a psychopomp (which Joes rationalises as ‘cycle-pump’ just as he makes ‘Axis Mundi’ ‘ask us Monday’) is one who guides the souls of the (newly) dead from one world to the next (it is also one of the titles given to Hermes, messenger of the gods). The inference to be drawn is that Joe has died, either before the story starts, or else early on. On the one hand, there is that singular moment of inner thought I noted on the first page,

Quick, Joe. Now, Joe

Which I associate with a line from WB Yeats’s The Cold Heaven:

when the ghost begins to quicken,
Confusion of the death-bed over

(‘Quick’ of course can mean ‘alive, living’ as in ‘the quick and the dead’). This could point either way: Joe certainly undergoes a sustained period of confusion which only clears when he asks (on the penultimate page) ‘Treacle Walker, am I dead?’ but we might also take it to be the starting point of an altered mode of existence. Treacle Walker’s response to Joe’s question is

‘I will not say you are dead. Rather, in this world you have changed your life, and are got into another place.’

On the other hand, the momentous thrice-repeated summons (‘no body wishes to come in’) that panics Joe into opening the door and letting in ‘a hurlothrumbo of winter… a lomperhomock of night. Nothing more’ might also be a candidate for the moment of dissolution, at once momentous and insignificant – not that it really matters. In one interview, Garner observes that Treacle Walker and Joe are in some sense alternative versions of himself: Walker is the classics don he might have become, had he stayed on at Oxford, while Joe is the boy he might have been had he never gone to Manchester Grammar School – and one way that might have happened is if he had died beforehand, which Garner almost did from childhood illnesses, on three separate occasions.

Joe’s progress is marked by small but significant actions on his part which reveal his true character (and worth) in contrast to the sharp-tongued intolerance (bred of fear and confusion) that he displays for much of the time. At the outset, he chooses humbly and fairly, feeling that the little pot is as much as he is entitled to claim from among the glittering treasures (‘they’re worth loads, this lot… more than jamas or bones.’). Then he is courteous: when the rag-and-bone man complains of the heat, Joe invites him in where it is cooler, so welcoming the stranger, one of the primal acts of human decency. Later, it is when Joe asks for help, mired in the bog, that Thin Amren comes. He shows courage and resourcefulness in tackling the task he is set, to vanquish Whizzy, and in the greater one of returning Thin Amren to the bog. He takes responsibility for his actions in summoning the cuckoo and causing the disruption which he has resolved: ‘No. It was me. I did it.’ Finally, he is unselfish, compassionate and generous: after Treacle Walker has answered his question ‘am I dead?’ Joe asks him

‘What is it you want for you? What is it you want most? For you. Not some wazzock else.’

to which Walker responds,

‘never has a soul asked that of me.’

This is a book that rewards rereading: there is so much in its 15000 words that more is to be had from it every time. It is multilayered in its meanings and is not ‘about’ any one thing; it deals with the riddles of time, human existence and death, the relation of past and present, the mysteries of religion and storytelling. It is, above all, life-affirming: the jealousy that is the one thing Treacle Walker cannot cure is felt by Thin Amren, who loves the Whirligig, the fleeting brilliance of life that Joe embodies, and is envious that he cannot have it (compare what the shade of Achilles tells Odysseus when he visits the underworld: ‘I’d rather serve as another man’s labourer, as a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the lifeless dead.’) He is jealous that Treacle Walker shares his company while he cannot. In one sense, just as all the characters are aspects of Garner (if Joe is the boy he might have been and Walker the don, then Thin Amren is surely the writer he has become, who dreams worlds into existence) they are also aspects of each other: Joe has been the man ritually sacrificed by the tribe and immersed in the bog, giving his life that all life might continue (perhaps he is also ‘the man that sang in the marrow bone’) and in the end, he becomes Treacle Walker, by releasing him from his duty and taking it on himself, so that the book ends as it began with the rag-and-bone man’s cry.


* much of the delight of reading and rereading this book is to seek out the sources of the obscurer parts, a task made much easier by the internet. This rhyme, for instance, turns out to have been composed by Garner himself more than fifty tears ago as part of a tale he rewrote in The Hamish Hamilton Book of Goblins.

Α or Ω ? Reflections on ‘A Vignette’ – M R James’s last masterpiece

‘Feeding the Cockerels’ by Myles Birket Foster

A Vignette is generally described as ‘the last ghost story MR James ever wrote’ – not unreasonably, since it was published posthumously in the year of his death, 1936, in the November edition of The London Mercury (at that time, a major monthly literary journal), James having died in June. Evidently the story was commissioned for the Christmas 1935 edition but arrived too late, so was probably written some time in late 1935. It is something of an outlier when it comes to the canon of his work, and is seldom anthologised; the only place that I have seen it (and the first time I even heard of it) is in Richard Dalby’s collection, The Sorceress in Stained Glass (a book I bought on the strength of it). Its rarity is a pity, since it deserves to be better known; I think that it is, in its own small way, a masterpiece, and as far as its author is concerned, a work of singular importance.

I cannot claim to have thought so on first reading it; my recollection is that I enjoyed it well enough, but that it definitely belonged in the ‘minor’ category (of which, more later). There was, I thought, a comforting familiarity about it – so many details were characteristic James, and resonated with many of his earlier tales: it was pleasing to find that the old master had not lost his touch, even if his best days of invention were behind him. The last word I would have thought to apply to it is ‘original’; indeed, it seemed precisely the sort of piece that an acknowledged master of the genre might produce late in life in response to a commission that invited him to revisit old familiar territory, yet again – brief, as well-crafted as ever, but essentially a rehash of many elements that already feature in his previous stories.

It is only from rereading it recently that I have revised my opinion and come to think that it is original in a very precise sense: one might also call it seminal. Even if it is the last ghost story he actually wrote, I would suggest that it is quite possibly the forerunner of them all. I say ‘possibly’ because James is nothing if not a master of his craft; and just as it is wise, if a ghost-story is to be persuasive, to allow more than one possible explanation of the events it relates, so with A Vignette, two distinct and even opposite readings are possible. It may be, as I have suggested, a minor work in which a master of the genre, feeling obliged to write something, produces (to paraphrase his own note on A Haunted Doll’s House) ‘a variation on former stories in the hope that there is enough of variation in it to make the repetition of motifs tolerable’.

On the other hand, it may be that this is not the last in a long line of stories in a similar vein, but rather an account of the original childhood experience from which all the others sprang, an experience that explains not only the recurrent features of those tales, but also what prompted him to tell stories of that kind in the first place.

The key, I think, lies in one feature of A Vignette which is almost unique: aside from his children’s story, The Five Jars, only one other of James’s tales is related directly in the first person, as if the narrator is telling of events that have actually befallen him. That other is its companion in what I earlier called the ‘minor’ category, that odd lopsided nine-tenths-humorous curiosity, After Dark in the Playing Fields. We know, of course, that it is an error to assume uncritically that the ‘I’ in the story is the person who wrote it, but given that James was raised in a country rectory (where A Vignette is set) and was Provost of Eton (the location of the playing fields referred to in After Dark) we have reasonable grounds for supposing that here James is speaking as himself and that he may be giving an authentic account of an actual personal experience.

(As regards After Dark, I do not of course mean the humorous encounter with the owl, but rather the odd ‘tacked-on’ portion of a dozen or so lines at the end which hardly belongs with the rest – that, to my ear at least, has the ring of truth about it [indeed, it prompted me to write a story of my own – The Partygoers])

For those well-versed in James’s work, to read A Vignette is to hear, at frequent intervals, the wine-glass ting! of resonance as this or that aspect of the text recalls some feature of an earlier tale. Why not try it yourself, with this combination of the opening lines and a passage that comes soon after, in which (to paraphrase the author once more) ‘the ominous thing first puts out its head’:

You are asked to think of the spacious garden of a country rectory, adjacent to a park of many acres, and separated therefrom by a belt of trees of some age which we knew as the Plantation.

I should be puzzled to fix the date at which any sort of misgiving about the Plantation gate first visited me. Possibly it was in the years just before I went to school, possibly on one later summer afternoon of which I have a faint memory, when I was coming back after solitary roaming in the park, or, as I bethink me, from tea at the Hall: anyhow, alone, and fell in with one of the villagers also homeward bound just as I was about to turn off the road on to the track leading to the Plantation. We broke off our talk with ‘goodnights’, and when I looked back at him after a minute or so I was just a little surprised to see him standing still and looking after me. But no remark passed, and on I went. By the time I was within the iron gate and outside the park, dusk had undoubtedly come on; but there was no lack yet of light, and I could not account to myself for the questionings which certainly did rise as to the presence of anyone else among the trees, questionings to which I could not very certainly say ‘No’, nor, I was glad to feel, ‘Yes’ because if there were anyone they could not well have any business there. To be sure, it is difficult, in anything like a grove, to be quite certain that nobody is making a screen out of a tree trunk and keeping it between you and him as he moves round it and you walk on. All I can say is that if such an one was there he was no neighbour or acquaintance of mine, and there was some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded.

For me, the landscape is reminiscent not only of the ‘park… protected – we should say grown up – with large old timber’ through which the unfortunate Mr Wraxall (in Count Magnus) makes his way past the mausoleum where Count Magnus lies, surrounded by ‘limitless… woods near and distant, all dark beneath a sky of liquid green’ but also recalls (as the child James makes his way homeward through it) that charming slideshow of Mr Karswell’s in Casting the Runes, ‘which represented a little boy passing through his own park – Lufford, I mean – in the evening. …and this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn to pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees’.

There are more than a few such parks with their grand houses in other stories – Aswarby Hall in Lost Hearts, Anningley Hall in The Mezzotint to name but two; and while it might be argued that this simply reflects the adult James’s admitted predilection for such houses, it is reasonable to ask both where that predilection originated, and why such landscapes feature in so many of his stories: might it not be from the musings of an imaginative and impressionable child whose daily walks took him through just such surroundings?

But our tally of resonances is far from done. I think it quite possible, for instance, that the neighbour who stood looking after him as he went through the wood grew up to be the ticket man at Dover who called after Mr Karswell, ‘Beg pardon, sir, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ and on receiving a brusque reply said to his subordinate, ”ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone.’ And as for the presence among the trees, does it not recall a line which Mr Humphreys (whose eponymous Inheritance also consists of a fine house and surrounding park) finds in the small quarto in his library,

‘but as Night fell, wherein all the Beasts of the Forest do move, he begun to be sensible of some Creature keeping Pace with him and, as he thought, peering and looking upon him from the next Alley to that he was in’

as well as the predicament of Fanshawe in Gallows Wood (entered by ‘a gate… leading into a belt of plantation’) in A View from a Hill: ‘I had all the fancies one least likes… indistinct people stepping behind trees in front of me, yes, and even a hand laid on my shoulder… just about at the middle of the plot, I was convinced that there was someone looking down on me from above – and not with any pleasant intent.’

That the presence in A Vignette (if indeed there was one) had ‘some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded’ does not surprise us, since that is the standard garb of many of James’s apparitions – but might we here be encountering the original of all those others?

A little further on in A Vignette, the child who says ‘I seem to see myself again in the small hours gazing out of the window across moonlit grass and hoping I was mistaken in fancying any movement in that half-hidden corner of the garden’ certainly recalls young Stephen Elliott in Lost Hearts ‘standing at the open window of his bedroom, looking out over the country’ when ‘the mysterious population of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest.’

What follows in A Vignette is a passage that reflects on the nature of recurring dreams: ‘the moment a dream set in I knew that it was going to turn out ill, and that there was nothing I could do to keep it on cheerful lines’ and this undoubtedly chimes with an observation made by the narrator of O Whistle and I’ll Come to You (whom we can take to be James himself) ‘Experto crede [‘take the word of an expert’] pictures do come to the closed eyes of one trying to sleep, and are often so little to his taste that he must open his eyes to disperse them.’

The dream that James reports has an authentic ring, and recalls, not so much a specific story, but James’s own advice on crafting ghost stories: ‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

compare that to

Ellis the gardener might be wholesomely employed with rake and spade as I watched at the window; other familiar figures might pass and repass on harmless errands; but I was not deceived. I could see that the time was coming when the gardener and the rest would be gathering up their properties and setting off on paths that led homeward or into some safe outer world, and the garden would be left – to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.

and you find in the second a specific realisation of what is described in general terms in the first.

On a point of technique, the way in which the dream in A Vignette makes a link between the experience in the Plantation and what is to come in the garden is strikingly similar to the way Parkins’s dream in O Whistle links his homeward walk along the beach with the later events in his bedroom. Another feature of it points to a different story:

Now, too, was the moment near when the surroundings began to take on a threatening look; that the sunlight lost power and a quality of light replaced it which, though I did not know it at the time my memory years after told me was the lifeless pallor of an eclipse.

The momentary change in atmosphere from calm to threatening, heralded by a change in the quality of light, is surely also found in two related passages, one from the unfinished John Humphreys and the other from A Neighbour’s Landmark: ‘The homely well known pasture seemed in a moment to widen into an illimitable grey expanse – an acute feeling of extreme loneliness and of being on a hopeless and aimless journey came over him’ (John Humphreys)

‘But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields… I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest… but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders … of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’ (A Neighbour’s Landmark)

As I have remarked elsewhere, these too have an authentic ring – anyone who has felt it will recognise their accuracy as descriptions of sudden acute dysphoria, the sense that no pleasure is to be had from anything, and all the goodness has drained out of life. While I accept that this is aside from the main line I am pursuing here, it is interesting to find these fictionalised accounts of what I strongly suspect was a personal adult experience for James couched in terms reminiscent of what may have been an actual childhood terror.

The resonances with earlier work continue in the account of the central experience itself: when the child in A Vignette steals down to the garden ‘with an access of something like courage – only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst –’ to see what is actually there, he strongly recalls Stephen Elliott, who wakes from a terrifying dream and ‘with a courage which I do not think can be common among boys of his age… went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dream were really there.’ Stephen finds nothing; the child in A Vignette is less fortunate: Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.

Not only does this recall a line from Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, “and have you never heard” cries a Neighbour “of what Faces have been seen to look out over the Palisadoes and betwixt the bars of the Gate?” but that curious detail, ‘It was pink and, I thought, hot’ immediately conjures the experience of Mrs Anstruther in The Rose Garden: ‘It was not a mask. It was a face – large, smooth, and pink. She remembers the drops of perspiration that were starting from its forehead’. The apparition itself conforms to (or might we say, is the source of?) James’s dictum, ‘the ghost should be malevolent or odious’ – he expands on the description above: There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. Nor does it make the matter any better if the expression gives no clue to what is to come next. I said just now that I took this face to be malevolent, and so I did, but not in regard of any positive dislike or fierceness which it expressed. It was, indeed, quite without emotion: I was only conscious that I could see the whites of the eyes all round the pupil, and that, we know, has a glamour of madness about it. The immovable face was enough for me. I fled, but at what I thought must be a safe distance inside my own precincts I could not but halt and look back. There was no white thing framed in the hole of the gate, but there was a draped form shambling away among the trees.

Again, the ‘draped form shambling away among the trees’ is the standard-issue James apparition (and the distinctive gait is as much a characteristic as the fluttering draperies – James’s ghosts seldom walk: they crawl, move to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity, hover, and dart; or (as we have seen) hop). The one that Mitchell’s mother saw in A Neighbour’s Landmark, as well as being close kin to the dream-spectre of O Whistle and the dwellers around Wailing Well, would, we feel, be quite at home in the Plantation: ‘on the darkest evening she ever came through the wood… she seemed forced to look behind her as the rustling came in the bushes, and she thought she saw something all in tatters with two arms held out in front of it coming on very fast’. (And A Neighbour’s Landmark, of course, centres round a strip of wood with a path through it that the locals preferred to avoid, and when it ‘was stubbed up [t]hey done all the work in the daytime, I recollect, and was never there after three o’clock’.)

The climax of the story in A Vignette – the actual experience, if such it is – is approached with the masterly diffidence that characterises the whole tale. From the outset, James expresses doubt about the precise detail of what he is recalling and he accompanies this with the consistent use of another device, technically called paraleipsis (or apophasis), the rhetorical trick of drawing attention to something by denying it or pretending to ignore it. On the first page he says, in describing the Plantation, ‘but there is nothing that diffuses a mysterious gloom or imparts a sinister flavour – nothing of melancholy or funereal associations’ and likewise ‘there is neither offensive bleakness nor oppressive darkness’ – so conjuring all these things in the very act of denying them. As he approaches his account of the experience itself he begins by stating ‘One afternoon – the day being neither overcast nor threatening – I was at my window in the upper floor of the house.’ Even the face, when he finally sees it, ‘was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral’. James’s combination of continually casting doubt on the substance of what he saw with denials that anything overtly sinister attended it creates a sort of counterpoint in the reader’s mind to the effect that it has some substance and is sinister in character.

I mention this as a reminder that there is another way to read this story: James was, undoubtedly, a master of his craft, and he knew very well how to overcome the obstacle that inheres in all ghost stories, namely that they deal with matter which, on an everyday level, we find incredible. The usual device, which James generally deploys, is to put some distance between the narrator and the events he relates: the action is represented as happening to someone else, and may be further filtered through the medium of letters, diaries or old papers. This cleverly separates the credibility of James as a narrator from the credibility of the tale itself: we believe him to be a faithful reporter, so we are more inclined to accept the possibility that what he relays to us, however fantastic it seems, may just be true – the more so as James makes no attempt to force it upon us. But here, in this final ghost story, he dispenses with the buffer that distance provides and speaks directly as the person whom the strange events befell: can he still make us believe him?

I think he can, because I am genuinely in two minds as to whether A Vignette is an authentic account of an actual childhood experience, recalled in old age, or a tour de force of the ghost-story writer’s craft that perfectly simulates such an account. But if you were to press me, I would come down on the side of a genuine recollection of an actual childhood experience. In part, I know that is because I want it to be the case, but I feel that there is evidence to support my view. Two things combine to turn the scales for me: the first is the sheer abundance of the resonances. As we have already seen, there are echoes of A Vignette (I feel that this is the right way round to put it) in Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint, Count Magnus, O Whistle, The Rose Garden, Casting the Runes, Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, A Neighbour’s Landmark, A View from a Hill and Wailing Well (as well as a connection in character with After Dark in the Playing Fields) – that is a third of the collected stories, and there are a couple more resonances to be sounded before we are done.

The second thing that convinces me is what I would call explanatory power: we gain much more understanding of James’s stories and his motive in writing them if we suppose them to stem from the seminal childhood experience recounted in A Vignette than if we suppose A Vignette to be no more than a weary old man’s conscious or unconscious recycling of elements drawn from a range of his existing stories. I think we should take James’s concluding paragraph at face value, not least because it adumbrates an idea that recurs in more than one of his stories, including two we have not mentioned yet:

Do not press me with questions as to how I bore myself when it became necessary to face my family again. That I was upset by something I had seen must have been pretty clear, but I am very sure that I fought off all attempts to describe it. Why I make a lame effort to do it now I cannot very well explain: it undoubtedly has had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination. I feel that even now I should be circumspect in passing that Plantation gate; and every now and again the query haunts me: Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.

This, I think, is as plain a statement as we can find: that the childhood experience – whatever it was – ‘had some formidable power of clinging through many years to my imagination’ is amply demonstrated by the fact that aspects of it suffuse a great number of James’s stories, even to the point of making them seem (when considered as a whole) to draw on rather a narrow range of invention: so many houses with parks to be traversed, so many woods with some half-seen presence, so many cloaked or hooded apparitions with fluttering draperies and a curious gait. As to the query that haunts him, ‘are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see or speak to as they went about their daily occasions’, that recalls the memorable exchange between the Rector of Islington and Dr. Abell in Two Doctors:

“You are then of John Milton’s mind,” I said, “and hold that

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.”

‘”I do not know,” he said, “why Milton should take upon himself to say ‘unseen’; though to be sure he was blind when he wrote that.”

and the same notion finds its way into An Evening’s Entertainment in the conversation that the children’s great grandfather is reported to have had with Mr Davis and his young man:

‘Well,’ [my father] said, ‘it may suit you, but I shouldn’t like a lonely place like that in the middle of the night.’ and Mr Davis smiled, and the young man, who’d been listening, said, ‘Oh, we don’t want for company at such times’

(that word ‘company’ is characteristic of the way James can charge a quite ordinary word with sinister overtones: such as HP Lovecraft rely (overmuch to my mind) on obscure vocabulary to conjure horror – ‘arcane’ ‘blasphemous’ ‘Cyclopean’ ‘eldritch’ – but James can raise a frisson with the way he employs a common term. ‘Company’ (which occurs in a surprising number of his stories) almost invariably carries a sinister charge, from the old sacristan in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, ‘Monsieur will travel in company with his friends; they will always be near him. It is a good thing to travel thus in company – sometimes.’ (and that, it now strikes me, recalls the horrible betrayal of companionship that concludes A Warning to the Curious – ‘The notion of Paxton running after – after anything like this, and supposing it to be the friends he was looking for, was very dreadful to us.’) through to Parkins on the beach in O Whistle (in a scene that is a kind of reverse of the the one with Paxton): ‘One last look behind… showed him the prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him…[Parkins] decided that he almost certainly did not know him and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion.’ Dr Abell and Mr Davis’s young man we have already mentioned, and we can add, from Number 13, Anderson’s judgement on Daniel Salthenius, who had signed a contract to sell himself to Satan, ”Young idiot!’ he said, meaning Salthenius, who was only an undergraduate when he committed that indiscretion, ‘how did he know what company he was courting?” and of course in Casting the Runes ‘Both Dunning and Harrington are firmly convinced that it [the scrap of paper with the runes on it] had the effect of bringing its possessor into very undesirable company.’ To round it off (or begin it) we have the same usage in the description of the garden from A Vignette, quoted earlier: ‘and the garden would be left – to itself, shall we say, or to denizens who did not desire quite ordinary company and were only waiting for the word ‘all clear’ to slip into their posts of vantage.’)

To conclude, why James makes, in A Vignette, what he modestly describes as ‘a lame effort’ to describe his moment of childhood terror may be inexplicable to him, but I think I understand it well enough: towards the end of his life (perhaps already sensing that his time is drawing to a close) he is asked to write yet another ghost story, for the 1935 Christmas edition of the The London Mercury. That he does not finish it in time may be significant: perhaps, in quest of a plot, he has become sidetracked into pondering the path that brought him here, a distinguished scholar in his field and an eminent man who has persisted throughout life in what might be thought the frivolous pastime of writing ghost stories. Where did all that start? As Graham Greene observes, ‘There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in’.

For James, I think that moment was a distant experience rooted in the domestic landscape of his early childhood, an experience that comes to him now not as anything clear-cut but rather with (to borrow his own phrase) ‘a haze of distance’ – not unlike a vignette, in the photograhic sense, in the 1930s a style already redolent of Victorian times, ‘a small illustration or portrait photograph which fades into its background without a definite border’. But vignettes can also be ‘short, impressionistic scenes that focus on one moment or give a particular insight into a character, idea, or setting’ and James’s story also does all that: the one moment that it focuses on affords an insight not only into James’s character as a writer, but also into the ideas and settings that recur in his stories. I think it is significant that James ‘could never glean any kind of story bound up with the place’ even though he cannot deny ‘the strong probability that there had been one once’ – is not that want of a definitive explanation of his formative experience just what has given him both the licence and the spur to pursue, in his adult ghost stories, what such a story might have been?

Why Colin can’t remember – reflections on Alan Garner’s ‘Boneland’


Cave paintings, Lascaux, France (image courtesy of Prof saxx, via Wikimedia Commons)

Boneland must be one of the strangest sequels ever written. It is not Alan Garner’s best book, but for the questions it poses, it is of great interest to all of us who write for children.

It purports to complete the trilogy begun fifty years ago with his earliest books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. The first made a powerful impression on me, perhaps because I heard it on the wireless before I read it (and I was startled to discover, on rereading it, that it was the source of a key part of the climactic scene in my own first book, The Secret of the Alchemist – a borrowing of which I was entirely unconscious). Yet the second made so little impact that only when I took it out of the library last year, in preparation for reading Boneland, did I realise I had read it before.

The strangeness of Boneland as a sequel stems from its lack of sequence: of the two characters who feature centrally in the other books, one – Susan – is conspicuous by her absence, while the other – her brother Colin – is effectively a different character: as the result of a traumatic experience in adolescence, he has undergone a personality change, becoming an autistic polymath who is now, in adult life, a professor of astronomy.

He has also lost all memory of the events of those first two books. In other words, to all intents and purposes, he has no connection with the earlier books at all (and even things that seem like links – the fact that Colin and Susan are twins, that she addresses him as ‘Col’, that their parents are killed in an aircrash, that Susan disappears – none of these actually features in the earlier books).

At first sight this seems almost perverse, as if Boneland were less a sequel, more a repudiation of that earlier work – and in a way, it is; but the question to ask is, could it have been otherwise?

Let us suppose that Colin survives into adulthood with his memory intact: here is someone who has personally encountered wizards, witches and warlocks, elves, dwarves and goblins, sleeping Arthurian knights and house-high troll-women, all in the Cheshire countryside; at the very least, he would have become a professor of comparative folklore rather than astronomy – it is impossible to believe that such events would not have shaped the rest of his life.

But the truth of the matter is that it simply will not do: elves and goblins belong in storybooks; there is no way to reconcile Colin’s childhood encounters with the reality of his adult life that would be believable. The only thing is to have him conveniently forget it all.

So am I conceding what some critics have long asserted, that fantasy is childish stuff, of no interest to adults, and of doubtful value to children, who would be better served by books about the ‘real world’ ?

By no means.

Fantasy, as it happens, does succeed best with children of a certain age, but for reasons that are the opposite of those put forward by its detractors: far from being an escape from the real world, it is for them an image of it.

Consider that the child entering adolescence stands on the verge of a mysterious world that he must soon enter, a world of which he knows little, governed by powerful hidden forces, a place where anything might happen: it is a prospect both daunting and exciting, in equal measure. Mapped, that world would resemble the products of mediaeval cartographers – a tiny area (home, school) that is familiar, surrounded by huge blank spaces furnished by the imagination, where be dragons.


Tabula Rogeriana, 1154 (image from Wikimedia Commons: public domain)

In other words, fantasy literature is a metaphorical embodiment of the fears and hopes we all experience on the verge of adulthood, when, though we long for freedom and independence, we are still the responsibility of other people – our parents, or those who stand in their stead. We seek reassurance that we can enter that world alone and survive on our own resources, and the emotional experience of doing that is what fantasy adventures allow us to try out.

Garner’s problems with Boneland do not arise from the fact that the earlier books are fantasy, but from his failure to keep the worlds in them separate. Colin and Susan’s encounters take place where they live; they do not go to the monsters – the monsters come to them. And because Colin, as an adult, continues to inhabit the same landscape, the question of what happened to all those fabulous creatures becomes an awkward one.

In his later story, Elidor – a fine work that manages to evoke an epic world without being of epic length – Garner ensures that there is a portal (in the liminal space of an abandoned church in the process of being demolished) so that the children in that tale pass into another world for their magical encounters; even the magical objects they bring back with them are transformed, in the mundane world, into mundane things.

But Colin, if he could remember, would know that the Weirdstone of Brisingamen – Susan’s Tear – is under Alderley Edge, in Fundindelve, where the knights and their stallions lie asleep; he would know that Angharad Golden-hand’s floating island is somewhere on Redesmere – and it is unlikely that he would be more interested in distant galaxies, with that on his doorstep.


The View from Sormy Point, Alderley Edge (image courtesy of Randomgurn via Wikimedia Commons)

However, there is a second reason for Colin’s inability to remember, which has to do with Garner himself, and how he has come to view the business of storytelling. It is interesting that he rejects the label of ‘children’s writer’ – “I certainly have never written for children” – though it is hard to argue that his first two books are not primarily aimed at a young audience.

What he is, first and foremost, is a writer rooted in a particular landscape – what Orkney was to George Mackay Brown, the Cheshire countryside in the vicinity of Alderley Edge is to him. However, in those first two books the spirit of place is heavily overlaid with a rather motley heap of borrowings from Arthurian, Norse and Celtic myth.

In his later writing, he dispenses with this: increasingly, it is the landscape itself, its history and prehistory, that furnishes the element of wonder that legendary borrowings supplied before. The prehistoric bull-painting in the cavern that features in The Stone Book establishes a theme that runs through all his later work. That is the other reason why Garner has Colin forget his earlier adventures: that way of telling stories no longer works for him.

Boneland, in fact, has much more in common with Garner’s more recent works, Thursbitch and Strandloper. A key figure in all three is the Shaman, who mediates between the tribe and the forces beyond – forces that imbue the landscape, with which the tribe must come to terms if it is to survive, controlling (or at least harnessing) them by enmeshing them in a web of ritual and story.

In Boneland, the Shaman (who is also an aspect of Colin himself) is the last survivor of an extinguished human species, probably Neanderthals; in Strandloper, it is an 18th century Cheshire labourer who is transported for sedition and becomes an Aboriginal medicine man; in Thursbitch, it is a Cheshire packman, who keeps alive the ancient Mithraic bull-cult among the country folk residing in a remote valley.

The implication is that the storyteller stands in a direct line of descent from the shaman of old, and the ideas and images on which he draws are an inheritance we all share from our earliest beginnings, but which in modern times we are doing our best to deny and forget.

The world of the fantasy story resonates with the child on the verge of adolescence because she recognises it as an image of her own situation, something the adult is unable to do, because the very process of ‘growing up’ and entering ‘the real world’ is actually about acquiring a whole set of elaborate constructs to protect us from reality (which, as Eliot wisely remarked, humankind cannot bear very much).

We have work, we have mortgages, we have ‘lifestyles’ (a fine pretence, that we are actually able to shape and style our lives as we please, as if the unexpected was not at any moment liable to come down on us like a giant hammer) and – in the developed world at least, and in those countries where the social fabric still holds together and order is not breaking down – we collude in the communal self-deception that we have everything under control, that it’s all sorted, pretty much.

What Garner reminds us, as writers, is that our task is to open a crack in the walls of that complacency, and let in the light of wonder.


(This piece, here very slightly edited, originally appeared in the May 2013 edition of  An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, (ABBA) – the online presence of the SAS – The Scattered Authors Society)


Where to Find Talking Bears, or The Needless Suspension of Disbelief

polar bear child stroking tube

Something I have been struggling to pin down is a clear expression of my thoughts on the oft-quoted dictum of Coleridge, shown in its original context here:

‘it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.’

This strikes me as a curious instance of something that has become a commonplace – you can almost guarantee to come across it in critical discussion of certain things, chiefly film and theatre – despite the fact that it completely fails to stand up to any rigorous scrutiny. It is, in a word, nonsense.

But there is another strand here, which may be part of my difficulty. This dictum, and its popularity, strike me as a further instance of something I have grown increasingly aware of in my recent thinking, namely the subjugation of Art to Reason. By this I mean the insistence that Art is not only capable of, but requires rational explanation – that its meaning can and should be clarified by writing and talking about it in a certain way (and note the crucial assumption that involves, namely that art has meaning).

This seems to me much like insisting that everyone say what they have to say in English, rather than accepting that there are languages other than our own which are different but equally good.

But back to Coleridge. If the ‘willing suspension of disbelief for the moment’ is what ‘constitutes poetic faith,’ then all I can say is that it must be an odd sort of faith that consists not in believing something – or indeed anything – but rather in putting aside one’s incredulity on a temporary basis: ‘when I say I believe in poetry, what I mean is that I actually find it incredible, but I am willing to pretend I don’t in order to read it.’

That is the pernicious link – that this suspension of disbelief is a necessary prerequisite of engaging with poetry, fiction or indeed Art as a whole; we see it repeated (as gospel) in these quotations, culled at random from the internet:

‘Any creative endeavor, certainly any written creative endeavor, is only successful to the extent that the audience offers this willing suspension as they read, listen, or watch. It’s part of an unspoken contract: The writer provides the reader/viewer/player with a good story, and in return, they accept the reality of the story as presented, and accept that characters in the fictional universe act on their own accord.’

(‘Any creative endeavour’ ? ‘is only successful’ ? Come on!)

‘In the world of fiction you are often required to believe a premise which you would never accept in the real world. Especially in genres such as fantasy and science fiction, things happen in the story which you would not believe if they were presented in a newspaper as fact. Even in more real-world genres such as action movies, the action routinely goes beyond the boundaries of what you think could really happen.

In order to enjoy such stories, the audience engages in a phenomenon known as “suspension of disbelief”. This is a semi-conscious decision in which you put aside your disbelief and accept the premise as being real for the duration of the story.’
(‘required to believe’ ? ‘in order to enjoy’? Really?)

The implication is that we spend our waking lives in some sort of active scepticism, measuring everything we encounter against certain criteria before giving it our consideration; and when we come on any work of art – or at least one that deals with ‘persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic’ – we immediately find it wanting, measured against reality, and so must give ourselves a temporary special dispensation to look at it at all.

This is rather as if, on entering a theatre, we said to ourselves ‘these fellows are trying to convince me that I’m in Denmark, but actually it’s just a stage set and they are actors in costumes pretending to be other people – Hamlet, Claudius, Horatio, Gertrude; of course it doesn’t help that instead of Danish they speak a strange sort of English that is quite unlike the way people really talk.’

The roots of this confusion go back what seems a long way, to classical Greece (about twenty-five centuries) though in saying that we should remember that artistic expression is a great deal older (four hundred centuries at least; probably much, much more). I have quoted the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius before:

…when they had produced their respective pieces, the birds came to pick with the greatest avidity the grapes which Zeuxis had painted. Immediately Parrhasius exhibited his piece, and Zeuxis said, ‘Remove your curtain that we may see the painting.’ The painting was the curtain, and Zeuxis acknowledged himself conquered, by exclaiming ‘Zeuxis has deceived birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis himself.’

– Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary

This is the epitome of the pernicious notion that art is a lie, at its most successful where it is most deceptive: thus Plato banishes it from his ideal state, because in his world it is at two removes from Reality. Plato’s Reality (which he also identifies with Truth) is the World of Forms or Ideas, apprehended by the intellect; the world apprehended by the senses is Appearance, and consists of inferior copies of Ideas; so that Art, which imitates Appearance, is but a copy of a copy, and so doubly inferior and untrustworthy.

Aristotle takes a different line on Appearance and Reality (he is willing to accept the world of the sense as Reality) but continues the same error with his theory of Mimesis, that all art is imitation – which, to use Aristotle’s own terminology, is to mistake the accident for the substance, the contingent for the necessary.

To be sure, some art does offer a representation of reality, and often with great technical skill; and indeed there are works in the tradition of Parrhasius that are expressly intended to deceive – trompe l’oeil paintings, which in the modern era can achieve astonishing effects

but far from being the pinnacle of art (though they are demonstrations of great technical skill) these are a specialist subset of it, and in truth a rather minor one, a sort of visual joke.

Insofar as any work of art resembles reality there will always be the temptation to measure it against reality and judge it accordingly, and this is particularly so of the visual arts, especially cinema, though people will apply the same criterion to fiction and poetry.

They are unlikely to do so in the case of music, however, and this exception is instructive. Even where music sets out to be specifically representative (technically what is termed ‘program(me) music’, I believe) and depict some scene or action – for instance Britten’s ‘Sea Interludes’ –it still does not look like the thing it depicts (for the simple reason that it has no visual element). Music is so far removed in character from what it depicts that we do not know where to start in making a comparison – we see at once that it is a different language, if you like.

The Sea Interludes are extraordinarily evocative, yet we would not call them ‘realistic’, something we might be tempted to say of a photo-realistic depiction of a seascape compared to one by Turner, say:

(original source here)  Tom Nielsen – ‘First light surf’

Screenshot 2015-12-09 18.40.27

(JMW Turner, ‘Seascape with storm coming on’ 1840)

Of all the different forms of Art, it is cinema that has gone furthest down this erroneous path – with the rise of CGI, almost anything can be ‘realised’ in the sense of presenting it in fully rounded, fully detailed form, and the revival of 3D imagery in its latest version and various other tricks are all geared to the same end of making it seem as if you were actually there in the action, as if that were the ultimate goal.

Yet even with the addition of scent and taste – the only senses yet to be catered for in film – the illusion is only temporary and never complete: we are always aware at some level that it is an illusion, and indeed the more it strives to be a perfect illusion the more aware we are of its illusory nature (we catch ourselves thinking ‘these special effects are amazing!’).

On the other hand, a black and white film from decades ago can so enrapture us that we are completely engaged with it to the exclusion of all else – we grip the arms of our seat and bite our lip when the hero is in peril, we shed tears at the denouement, we feel hugely uplifted at the joyous conclusion – but none of this is because we mistake what we are seeing for reality; it has to do with the engagement of our feelings.

In marked contrast to the cinema, the theatre now rarely aims at a realistic presentation; on the contrary, the wit with which a minimum of props can be used for a variety of purposes (as the excellent Blue Raincoat production of The Poor Mouth did with four chairs and some pig masks) can be part of the pleasure we experience, just as the different voices and facial expressions used by a storyteller can. It is not the main pleasure, of course, but it helps clarify the nature of the error that Coleridge makes.

How a story is told – the technique with which it is presented, whether it be on stage, screen or page – is a separate thing from the story itself. Take, for instance, these two fine books by Jackie Morris




East of the Sun, West of the Moon‘ and ‘The Wild Swans‘ are traditional tales; in retelling them, Jackie Morris puts her own stamp on them, not only with her own words and beautiful illustrations, but also with some changes of detail and action (for more about the writing of East of the Sun, see here).

The nature of these changes is interesting. It is like retuning a musical instrument: certain notes that jarred before now ring true; the tales are refreshed – their spirit is not altered but enhanced.

This ‘ringing true’ is an important concept in storytelling and in Art generally (I have discussed it before, in this fable). On the face of it, both these tales are prime candidates for Coleridge’s pusillanimous ‘suspension of disbelief’: in one, a talking bear makes a pact with a girl which she violates, thus failing to free him from the enchantment laid on him (he is actually a handsome prince); in consequence, the girl must find her way to the castle East of the Sun, West of the Moon, an enterprise in which she is aided by several wise women and the four winds; there she must outwit a troll-maiden. In the other, a sister finds her eleven brothers enchanted into swans by the malice of their stepmother, and can only free them by taking a vow of silence and knitting each of them shirts of stinging nettles.

After all, it will be said, you don’t meet with talking bears, any more than you do with boys enchanted into swans, in the Real World, do you?

Hm. I have to say that I view the expression ‘Real World’ and those who use it with deep suspicion: it is invariably employed to exclude from consideration something which the speaker does not like and fears to confront. As might be shown in a Venn diagram, what people mean by the ‘Real World’ is actually a subset of the World, one that is expressly defined to rule out the possibility of whatever its proponents wish to exclude:

Screenshot 2015-12-09 19.18.50

In other words, all they are saying is ‘you will not find talking bears or enchanted swans if you look in a place where you don’t find such things.’

Cue howls of protest: ‘you don’t meet talking bears walking down the street, do you?’ Well, it depends where you look: if you look at the start of East of the Sun, you will meet a talking bear walking through the streets of a city. Further howls: ‘But that’s just a story!’

polar bear child stroking tube

(Some people met this bear on the London underground but I don’t think it spoke )

Well, no – it isn’t just a story; it’s a story – and stories and what is in them are as much part of the world as belisha beacons, horse-blankets and the Retail Price Index. The World, after all, must include the totality of human experience. The fact that we do not meet with talking bears in the greengrocer’s (and has anyone ever said we might?) does not preclude the possibility of meeting them in stories, which is just where you’d expect to find them (for a similar point, see Paxman and the Angels).

Pity or Terror? MR James and Jonathan Miller

Screenshot 2015-04-01 09.53.02Since MR James is our most noted writer of ghost stories, Michael Hordern one of our finest actors, and the many-faceted Jonathan Miller among our most celebrated directors, it should be no surprise that a production combining the talents of all three should acquire ‘classic’ status; but that should not stop us looking at it with a critical eye.

I am speaking, of course, of the 1968 BBC production of James’s tale ‘O whistle and I’ll come to you my lad’ which – not for the first time – has been the subject of some discussion on the MR James Appreciation Society Facebook page: one strand was initiated by a question about the ending, and whether it might not be more conclusive and in line with James; another asked who from the present crop of acting talent might play Professor Parkins, who has always been portrayed on TV as an older man (Hordern in 1968 was 57; John Hurt, in the recent remake, was around 70) despite being termed ‘young’ in the original.

This prompted me to go back and look again at the Miller version, which is available in full on YouTube (click here). It is frequently quoted as a classic adaptation of James’s tale (full text here) : does it deserve that accolade?

The Miller production – including the introduction, a curious feature we must return to – comes in at a little over 40’ long. In my edition, the original story runs to 30 pages of rather large type and takes about as long to read as the film does to watch; so there is not the usual need for paring-down of substance, character and incident.

Yet pared-down this production undoubtedly is: it centres almost exclusively on Hordern (he is seldom out of shot and generally alone) and considerable portions of the original tale are jettisoned, notably the university scene at the start, the encounter with the small boy outside ‘The Globe’ and the final stage of the encounter with the ghost (and what happens afterwards). In addition, the role of the colonel is considerably reduced, some events are conflated (the original has two whistleblowings and two rumpled bed incidents, the Miller version one of each) and the order of events is revised.

Now all that may be justified in terms of the change of medium, to bring the main storyline out more clearly; but James is a careful craftsman and seldom writes without purpose.

The TV story proper starts with a bed. It is in the foreground of the shot, viewed from an angle, a little from above. Two maids in frilly caps are in the process of making it; there is another bed, already made-up, in the background. The camera lingers on the bed as the maid smooths down the counterpane and satisfies herself that it is ready for whoever is coming.

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This is good dramatic technique: under the guise of every-day activity, our attention is drawn to the bed as something significant in the story; in our minds, we are already forming the question that is explicitly articulated later in the tale: ‘who is this who is coming?’

The question seems to be answered in the next scene: the maid’s exit through one door blends into the opening of another, in the cab that collects Michael Hordern from the station. The vintage of the cab – a Morris 25, I think – and the maids’ uniform suggest a time between the wars, the twenties rather than the thirties*. The original story was written in 1903 and its setting is clearly contemporary, even though candles and rats in bedrooms are taken for granted as features of a provincial hotel. It is interesting that Miller has opted to set his story in the past, though given that 1968 was a time of great social and cultural upheaval, he probably thought a contemporary setting impossible.

Economy of storytelling in a TV production is often allied to drive and urgency, but that is not the case here: the pace is remarkably leisurely and the focus for a good ten minutes is entirely on establishing Hordern’s character: a man almost childlike in his lack of self-awareness and preoccupation with his own thoughts; he is, from the outset, an isolated figure – sitting at a separate table, put out of countenance by the overtures of an attractive single woman (later glimpsed with another, younger gentleman in tow), declining the offer of a round of golf, going for a solitary ramble.

Not till we are more than a third of the way in does Parkins, quite by chance and out of the blue, commit the act that precipitates the main action of the tale.

It is worth contrasting this with what James does. His Professor Parkins is first encountered in the hospitable surroundings of the College Hall, with the dons at table and looking forward to the break from academic teaching – it is the end of Full Term, and is either early December or early March (I incline to March because of the golf; but there is a reference to hotels being ‘closed for the winter’ which could be read either way).

In the first five pages (a sixth of the total) we establish not only Parkins’s character, but an important foundation for the rest of the story. Parkins is, like the character Hordern portrays, a recognisable type (and one does wonder if James had anyone specific in mind) but he is more subtly drawn than Miller’s and of quite a different sort. Far from being isolated, he is gregarious enough (‘my friends have been making me take up golf this term’) though his colleagues find him a bit of a pain: he is evidently one of those people who, having arrived at their own position on a matter and found it at odds with what is generally believed, feel compelled at every opportunity to ‘correct’ the popular notion. In Parkins’s case, the matter is the supernatural; he not only disbelieves in it, he actively deprecates it, and any mention of ghosts is guaranteed to get him up on his high horse, a propensity that some colleagues take advantage of for sport.

(there is some suggestion that his zeal is that of the convert – there is a reference later to his ‘unenlightened days’)

But alongside this character, Parkins is also given a motivation for his later actions. Rather like the bedmaking at the start of the Miller piece, it is introduced under the guise of everyday detail – a colleague asks him to look at the remains of a Templar Preceptory near where he is staying; but as with the bedmaking, the reader senses that this is something that will prove of greater significance in due course. The Templars, of course, had a reputation long before Dan Brown ever got hold of them, and James’s stories generally feature antiquarian things as key elements. (‘Oh Whistle’ first featured in ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ and the question about the preceptory is asked ‘by a person of antiquarian pursuits’).

So while the Miller character is still ambling about, absorbed in his own little world, we already know who the James character is, where he is going, and what he plans to do there.

At this point it is worth looking in detail at the introduction Miller provides. I have to say I find it rather odd, from its opening declaration ‘this is a tale of the supernatural’ – why is that necessary? – to the curious (and somehat disparaging) reference to James’s ghost-story writing as ‘a sideline’; (and is it accurate to describe James as ‘an archaeologist’?) but the bit I take real issue with is what follows, every part of which I think is questionable.

James’s tales, we are told, ‘have a peculiar atmosphere of cranky scholarship’ – do they, really? What follows deals with a cranky scholar, certainly, but he seems much more Miller’s invention than James’s; and I cannot really think ‘cranky scholarship’ is a significant factor in any of James’s tales.

And what are we to make of the claim that ‘O Whistle’ is ‘the darkest’ of James’s tales? The opposite is surely the case – for all its undoubted terror, it is conspicuously light, in several respects – the tone throughout is humorous, from the observation of the colonel’s ‘pronouncedly protestant’ views, the author’s self-depreciation of his knowledge of golf, to the touch of schadenfreude in the closing line; more importantly, the penalty suffered by Professor Parkins is light in comparison with those other James characters who are unwisely inquisitive, Mr Wraxall in ‘Count Magnus’ and the unfortunate Paxton in ‘A Warning to the Curious’; their ending is certainly dark.

And is it a tale of ‘solitude and terror’? again, that seems a better description of the tale Miller tells than of James’s: Hordern is very much alone throughout; the original Professor Parkins is not.

And does it have a moral? If the original has, it is lightly drawn – there is some suggestion (the reference to a surplice at the end) that Parkins has resumed the practice of his faith, but the main point of the story is a familiar one in James, that some things are best not meddled with; Parkins’s reason is not overthrown, but his rational certainties which were such an irritant to his colleagues have been considerably undermined. We are left with the feeling, in James’s tale, that Parkins is the better for his experience, at least in the sense that his colleagues will find him more tolerable company.

In short, then, Miller’s introduction is a piece of agenda-setting, which prepares the way for a tale quite different from James’s; but it also serves to disguise or distract from the weaknesses that arise in Miller’s version as a result of his deviation from the original.

As I have suggested, you tamper with a James tale at your peril: you will find little there that does not have some clear purpose. Miller’s omission of the Templar Preceptory is, to my mind, a blunder. As noted above, it is in many respects parallel to the focus on the bed at the start of the TV production: both prepare the ground for what comes later; but there is an important difference. James’s Professor sets out with a clear motivation.

The Templars are an odd lot and it would be no surprise if an object found in the ruins of one of their churches – in its own special place in the altar, mind – proved to be something out of the common run; and given that Parkins has undertaken to take a look at the preceptory, it is entirely credible that he would appropriate such an object out of legitimate antiquarian curiosity.

By contrast, some 13’ in to the TV version, the Hordern character is sketching out the itinerary for the ‘trudge’ he proposes in preference to a round of golf with the colonel: ‘take a packed lunch… take a look at the dunes… the beach… the cemetery.’ Why this rather clumsy addition? It seems an odd place to specify. Indeed, the main purpose seems to be to elicit from the colonel an equally improbable response: ‘oo-er – a bit too spooky for me!’ which Hordern echoes sceptically: ‘spooky? is it? (hmmm) spooky.’ In terms of subtlety, this is on a par with an elbow in the ribs; it also comes out of nowhere.

When he does come on the cemetery, he shows no more than passing, slightly scornful interest, tramping across graves and throwing out a quotation from Gray’s Elegy; emerging onto the crest of the dune, he finds a grave in the process of erosion: a bone is protruding. Again, he is unsubtly disrespectful: ‘give the dog a bone!’ and for a moment it looks as if he is actually going to desecrate the remains (but why would he do that?). Instead, he reaches over the edge and roots around – again, why? – and finds an object which he puts in his pocket, saying ‘finders keepers!’

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Evidently, this is meant to be his transgression – he has robbed a tomb – though why he does so is unclear (he is not an archaeologist – his discipline appears to be philosophy, and unlike James’s character, he is not acting on anyone else’s behalf). Further, instead of clarifying what follows, this act obscures it. If we are now embarked on a course that leads to the sheeted figure rising from the bed, what is the cause? It would appear to be the theft from the grave; what, then, of the blowing of the whistle, which comes later? is that merely incidental? And why, it might well be asked, is such a whistle in a grave in the first place?

The James character is an unwise meddler, but neither an arbitrary nor ill-disposed one; Miller’s character, by contrast, does something improbable, finds something unlikely, and suffers inexplicable consequences: why should taking an object from a grave cause bedsheets to rise up from an empty bed? – for that is as far as the Miller version goes: Hordern regresses to infancy at the mere sight of it; there is no direct assault on his person, no threat to life as there is in the original, where Parkins is almost forced out of the window.

And here, I think, we come to the crux of the matter: for all its superficial resemblance, Miller’s tale is quite different from James’s and not, I think, as good: where the original gives us a genuine thrill of terror – we can feel with Parkins – Miller’s version shows us something that moves us to pity only.

Something that James is particularly good at is crescendo: in his own words,
‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage’

In many of his best tales this dictum is enacted by a steady convergence, as the threat, at first vaguely discerned and barely recognised, draws steadily nearer till it is in intimate and terrifying proximity (consider the ‘irish yew’ in Mr Humphreys, the progression from tram advert, man in the street with fliers, through removal of servants to the horror under the pillow in Casting the Runes; or the steady pursuit of Mr Wraxall across Europe to the terrible climax at Belchamp St Paul in Count Magnus).

And, as James observes, it is an important part of the effect that the protagonist is ‘undisturbed by forebodings’ – those are for the reader to feel. Thus, when Parkins spies a distant figure hurrying to catch up, it does not disturb his equanimity as it does ours; the moaning of the wind after he blows the whistle does not affect him as readily as ‘it might have… fanciful people’; and importantly the figure in his ‘waking dream’ of the lonely beach is a man whose pursuit he observes with some degree of horror but nonetheless the detachment of a spectator – he sees no cause to identify it with himself, though we do.

Likewise, the witness of the small boy the next day – ‘it wived at me out the winder’ – ratchets up the tension for us, but not for the pragmatic Parkins, who is more concerned that his room has been entered and his things interfered with. Likewise the recurrence of the curious rumpling of the other bed impresses us, but not him. When he does at last ‘see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed’ it may be a complete shock to him, but we have been expecting something of the sort (with pleasurable dread) for quite some time.

By contrast, the Michael Hordern character feels apprehensions that we do not, because they arise, not from his circumstances, but the kind of man he is. Miller sets out to show (as he somewhat portentously puts it) ‘the dangers of intellectual pride and how a man’s reason can be overthrown when he fails to acknowledge those forces within himself which he simply cannot understand’. It could be argued that he succeeds, but the upshot is that the climax affects Hordern’s character much more than it affects us, and in a way that we may understand but do not share.

From the start, Hordern’s character strikes us as vulnerable, even childlike – everyday life could easily take him by surprise, let alone any supernatural manifestation. He is an unworldly man, wrapped in a cocoon of scholarship, quite out of touch with day-to-day reality, with little empathy for his fellow humans and no perception of how he appears to them, but at the same time completely assured in his learning – in short, he is something of a stereotype, the general public’s idea of an Oxbridge don, and by comparison to James’s version (intended, of course, for a university audience) the portrayal, though well-acted, is rather crudely drawn.

His intellectual collapse is not a crescendo but rather a slow appearance of stealthy cracks. We are shown him at his most secure in his breakfast-table lecture to the colonel on the matter of ghosts (though why, pray, has the colonel raised that topic with him at breakfast, a propos of nothing? the equivalent conversation in the original tale – about raising the wind – arises much more plausibly). The professor concludes the conversation by wittily inverting the Hamlet quotation that the colonel offers him: ‘there are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth’ – but derives rather too much amusement from his own jest. This, then, is the eminence from which he is set to fall.

His first inkling of doubt comes on the dunes, where the recollection of his witticism comes back to him, but then reverts to its original form. As he settles down to read that night, the camera lingers on the empty bed and for some reason Parkins recalls the words on the whistle: ‘who is this who is coming?’ It is only now – almost half an hour into the forty minutes – that the waking dream of the beach-sequence occurs, but with the crucial difference that Parkins sees himself as the one pursued. At this point, I would say that his anxiety now overtakes our own – whereas in the original we are fearful on his behalf because he is oblivious to the full significance of what he sees, in the Miller version we can see no reason why he should see himself as the object of pursuit by the rather abstract flapping thing in the middle distance. We do not feel, in James’s words, that ‘something of the kind may happen to me.’

The next morning, Hordern’s Parkins moves still further beyond our sympathetic range. In the original tale, there are two incidents of bed-rumpling, the first after his troubled night with the beach sequence, which occurs much earlier than in the TV version, and the second after the incident with the little boy, which Miller omits altogether. In both cases, Parkins is able to rationalise it; it is the reader who is disturbed. Now, Hordern’s Parkins is deeply disturbed by the sight of the rumpled bed because he cannot rationalise it. He is driven to seek solace and reassurance in FH Bradley’s essay on Spiritualism – not, I would suggest, a course that many of us would take in the circumstances. Having regained something of his equanimity, he reads and then dozes by the fire, only to be roused by a second repetition (for no apparent cause) of the line ‘who is this who is coming?’ At this point we do begin to feel that we are watching a man’s reason in the process of being overthrown, but the terror is personal to him: we do not share it.

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After bathing, Parkins retires for the night only to be wakened by noises close at hand. In a prolonged reaction shot – lasting nearly thirty seconds – he gazes at something in growing horror; then we are shown the stirring bedclothes. As they rise up, Parkins inexplicably gets out of bed and goes across to the washstand by the window, which takes him nearer the thing on the bed, though not by the most direct route – he is neither confronting nor fleeing it but sidling past it at an angle. In the James version, there is a reason for this movement – he is going for his stick, to use as a weapon (it has been used to prop up a makeshift blind to keep the moonlight out); in the Miller version, there is no reason for it at all.

In the James version, this move is a mistake, as it allows the thing to get between him and the door; what follows is a genuinely nightmarish sequence, a sort of macabre dance in which Parkins realise his opponent is blind and might be evaded if only he could find a way past; but the sight of its ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ roots him to the spot, then the accidental touch of its draperies forces a cry of disgust from him and the creature pounces in the direction of the sound, driving him backward though the window ‘uttering cry after cry at the utmost pitch of his voice’ – it is this that brings the colonel (who has earlier indicated that he fears something might occur) to the rescue: he is just in time to see the dreadful group at the window, though the sheet-thing collapses to nothing as he closes on it.

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In the Miller version, the mere sight of the rearing bedclothes – with no threat to his person – so unmans the Professor that he regresses to infancy and sticks his thumb in his mouth and begins to utter muffled sobs, which somehow are loud enough to attract the attention of the colonel who (despite having no reason to think Parkins in any danger) bursts into his bedroom and switches on the light; all he sees is Parkins, whose sobs have now evolved into repeated denials: ‘O, no! O, no!’ These continue for nine repetitions as the colonel folds the sheet in the background and the titles roll over Hordern’s disbelieving face.

And we, the audience, feel pity at most, but hardly (I would argue) terror.

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*The indefatigable Frank Badger has established that the registration of the cab indicates the 1930s – ‘APG 584, Wolseley (blue) registered in Norwich June 1933.’

‘The sound must mean mischief’ : M R James and the Age of Uncertainty


J Atkinson Grimshaw, ‘Shipping on the Clyde’

Is it still possible to write ghost stories or are they mere period curiosities?

Let me start by saying that the period and the milieu from which MR James’s stories spring has a strong attraction for me. Things Edwardian afflict me with acute nostalgia (nostalgia, as its name suggests, is a painful yearning). I have a predilection for libraries, whether in universities or country houses, and nothing would please me better than to pursue leisurely researches of an antiquarian nature at home or abroad, especially on my bicycle (a Sunbeam, for preference, or better still, a Lea & Francis); I could fancy myself, Newbolt-like, in some ancient college hall

‘… the dark wainscot and timbered roof,

The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;

The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,

The Dons on the dais serene.’

So undoubtedly much of the pleasure of reading MR James for me is that it conjures a world to which I am strongly predisposed, one I would happily inhabit in my imagination, if not in reality. But is there more to it than that?

When James observes that

‘some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories; not a very insistent actuality, but one strong enough to allow the reader to identify himself with the patient’

we must not imagine that we can ‘identify with the patient’ as James’s primary audience could: for them, his characters were people much like themselves or their acquaintances, moving in a world with which they were personally familiar; for us they are arcadians, unwitting inhabitants of an age of innocence. Even the most contemporary of James’s stories are set about a century ago, in a world that has now vanished, and in vanishing has acquired a special sort of allure it can never have had for those who lived in it.

That allure, however, is an historical accident: we should not make the mistake of supposing that being set in Edwardian England is a necessary adjunct of a ghost story. (One of the most curious instances of this is Susan Hill’s justly-celebrated The Woman in Black. It is a fine ghost story and Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation did it justice, though the recent film version is quite the worst adaptation of a book I have seen*.


‘Wharfedale’ by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Hill’s story has a strong period flavour throughout, both in style and detail. It opens on Christmas Eve, but in what year?

‘It was wretched weather, never seeming to come fully light, and raw, too. There had been no pleasure in walking, the visibility was too poor for any shooting and the dogs were permanently morose and muddy. Inside the house, the lamps were lit throughout the day and the walls of larder, outhouse and cellar oozed damp and smelled sour, the fires sputtered and smoked, burning dismally low.’

As pipe-smoking (step-)paterfamilias settles himself in his armchair by the fire, with the Christmas tree ‘candlelit and bedecked’, surrounded by his large family, including Isobel, ‘the most sensible, responsible of daughters’

‘only twenty-four years old but already the mother of three young sons, and set fair to produce more. She had the plump, settled air of a matron’

and the two boys, Oliver Ainley and his brother Will,

‘sober young men at heart, but for the time being they still enjoyed all the exuberance of young puppies, and indeed it seemed to me that Oliver showed rather too few signs of maturity for a young man in his first year at Cambridge and destined, if my advice prevailed with him, for a career at the bar’

you could be forgiven for thinking that you were (even at this, the latest point in the story) some time in the reign of Victoria or Edward.

You might be surprised to find a wireless in the house, and utterly shocked if you turned it on to hear Noddy Holder bawling ‘Merry Christmas!’ or the strains of ABBA singing ‘SuperTrouper’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘Brick in the Wall’ – and yet we might, for this is some time between 1973 and 1982, according to the internal evidence of the text**)

That is something of a digression, though it illustrates the influence exerted by the accidental ‘period charm’ of James’s ghost stories – it is a bit like the enthusiasm for ‘retro’ packaging which sees goods presented in containers that recall another age for which (a largely artificial) nostalgia has developed. But this error – mistaking the contingent for the necessary – exists on different levels.

At its least, it is no more than ‘imitating the externals’;  supposing that a ghost story must have an Edwardian setting ‘because all the best ones do’ is no worse than thinking Shakespeare’s plays would be more authentic performed in Elizabethan or Jacobean dress. That, to borrow a term from catholic teaching, is only a venial sin.

The mortal sin, which should concern anyone who aspires to write ghost stories or to adapt James’s, lies in compounding the mistake by drawing a false inference from it, namely that ghost stories must be set in the period when they were written because in those days it was still possible to believe in ghosts. The corollary is that we can’t do that now, and if you want to modernise the setting, you must also modernise the ghost, to the extent of substituting ‘something we can believe nowadays.’

The prime example of this is the recent ‘adaptation’ of  ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad ’, starring John Hurt, the subject of a vigorous discussion on The MR James Appreciation Society Facebook page  The writer in this case has evidently baulked at presenting a supernatural manifestation and has substituted a ‘psychological’ one instead, with an elaborate backstory to explain it, which takes this version so far from James’s original that it is hard to say they have anything in common at all. Where James’s confirmed bachelor Professor Parkins belongs with Messrs Wraxall (Count Magnus) and Paxton (A Warning…) in the category of the unwisely curious (though Parkins at least escapes with his life intact, if not his rational beliefs) Hurt’s Professor Parkin is the victim of personal grief, having lost his wife not to death, but to Alzheimer’s – she is, as I have said elsewhere, the inverse of a ghost – a living person who is effectively dead. The root of Parkin’s malady (which ultimately kills him) is evidently excess of grief and guilt at his inability to care for his wife and the fact that he has had to put her in a home.

There is a rather forced ingenuity in the way that James’s story has been ‘brought up to date’ and  ‘made relevant’ by linking it to contemporary concerns about senile dementia, the increase in the aged population and the growing need for institutional care; but were the concerns of James’s original really so inaccessible to a modern audience?

I think ‘modernisations’ of this sort stem from an erroneous supposition. James did not live in ‘the olden days’ when the sea of faith (as Arnold has it) was at its full: it was no easier to believe in ghosts in his day than it is now; James is as much a child of the modern age as we are ourselves, and it is for that very reason that his ghost stories have something that still resonates with us, something quite other than the accidental allure of their setting.

That James belongs in the modern age is easily demonstrated. As anyone will know who has read his only children’s book, The Five Jars, (published 1922) he invented the iPad:

Albrect Durer Knight Death & Devil

‘It was just like a small looking-glass in a frame, and the frame had one or two buttons or little knobs on it. Wag put it into my hand and then got behind me and put his chin on my shoulder’ ‘That’s where I’d got to,’ he said; ‘he’s just going out through the forest.’ I thought at the first glance that I was looking at a very good copy of a picture. It was a knight on horseback, in plate-armour, and the armour looked as if it had really seen service. The horse was a massive white beast, rather of the cart-horse type, but not so ‘hairy in the hoof’; the background was a wood, chiefly of oak-trees; but the undergrowth was wonderfully painted. I felt that if I looked into it I should see every blade of grass and every bramble-leaf. ‘Ready?’ said Wag, and reached over and moved one of the knobs. The knight shook his rein, and the horse began to move at a foot-pace. ‘Well, but he can’t hear anything, Wag,’ said his father. ‘I thought you wanted to be quiet,’ said Wag, ‘but we’ll have it aloud if you like.’ He slid aside another knob, and I began to hear the tread of the horse and the creaking of the saddle and the chink of the armour, as well as a rising breeze which now came sighing through the wood. Like a cinema, you will say, of course. Well, it was; but there was colour and sound, and you could hold it in your hand, and it wasn’t a photograph, but the live thing which you could stop at pleasure, and look into every detail of it.’

Frivolity aside, James’s engagement with the trappings of modernity is well examined in a fine essay entitled ‘Ghosts, trains and trams: the technologies of transport in the ghost stories of M. R. James’  by Ralph Harrington (apt name for a James scholar). However, it is something more than engagement with technology that characterises him as modern.

The Age of Uncertainty is the title of a book and TV series by the economist JK Galbraith. Although the title alludes to the ‘contrast between the great certainty in 19th century economic thought with the much less assured views in modern times’ it could be argued that the Age of Uncertainty truly begins with the twin revolutions of agriculture and industry that shaped the modern world in the century between 1750 and 1850 and had as profound an effect on the collective psyche as on British society:

‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’

(Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

What Marx describes in general terms was experienced acutely on a personal level by the Scots poet Edwin Muir, a younger contemporary of James. He was born in 1887 and grew up in Orkney, an island virtually untouched by the revolutions that had transformed Britain; when he was 14, he moved to teeming industrial Glasgow, where his father, two brothers and his mother died in quick succession, an experience that marked him profoundly for the rest of his days:

‘I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey.’

(Ever after, he equated Orkney with Eden and industrial Glasgow with Hell)

The alienation felt by Muir in an extreme form must have been felt to some degree, more or less consciously, by James and his contemporaries – it is, after all, the theme of the twentieth century – a growing anxiety and disillusion with progress and modern civilisation well expressed in Eliot’s The Waste Land. It remains with us today, after a hiatus in my childhood when the existential dread was that we would destroy the world with nuclear weapons; now, it has reverted to the fear that we will destroy it by our very way of life.

Screenshot 2014-04-04 09.57.54
The Britain of James’s day had grounds for complacency: she was an imperial power unmatched in history, one that reckoned the appropriate strength of her navy in terms of matching the combined strength of any two powers it was likely to combat; she was the workshop to the world, exporting finished goods all over the globe (in 1910-11 my grandfather delivered Mastodon, a Clyde-built dredger,  to Vancouver,  sailing this inshore craft across the Atlantic and through the Strait of Magellan, the additional coal required for the journey piled on deck)


The dredger ‘Mastodon’ in Vancouver

 Meanwhile, the home market was sustained with the abundant produce of a world-wide empire. James himself occupied a bastion of privilege at the heart of the British establishment, as Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, where the gilded youth of Empire went for their education. If you wanted an adjective to describe his own situation, and that of his primary audience, it would be secure.

Yet it is no paradox to find uncertainty in the midst of security; rather, it is human nature. We can sustain hope in the face of adversity and oppression, but security makes us uneasy – not all of us, but certainly the sensitive and the educated: the sensitive fear that things cannot be as good as they seem, that dark things lurk beneath the bright calm surface; the educated have learned that nothing lasts:

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye

(in Time of Pestilence, Thomas Nashe )

James’s primary audience – his younger contemporaries – were both sensitive and educated. Their enjoyment of their privileged position must have been attended, at some level, by an awareness of its fragility. This awareness could best be termed disquiet, the fear that your trust may be misplaced, that your sense of being unassailable may be ill-founded, the suspicion that what you rely on as most firm and solid may be fragile and illusory. If you wanted to characterise James’s stories in a single word it would be disquieting. A moment from Casting the Runes embodies it:

‘He was in bed and the light was out. He was wondering if the charwoman would come early enough to give him hot water next morning, when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. No step followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must mean mischief, for he knew that he had shut the door that evening…’

This passes almost unnoticed – eclipsed by the memorable moment of terror that follows – but it is a key incident: something has got in; the defences have been breached; what was out there is now in here (and that means in Dunning’s head as much as in his house) – the threshold has been crossed.

The term ‘liminality’ originates, I believe, in anthropology, and also has a place in psychology, but its derivation connects it with things more ancient than those fields of study and makes it a potent metaphor in the analysis of ghost stories. ‘Limen’ is Latin for a threshold, and in traditional folklore the threshold is a key defence: evil spirits may not cross it uninvited, which is why folktales abound in malign creatures of various sorts trying to wangle invitations from the unwary householder.

The threshold, as the entrance, stands between two worlds; it is a vulnerable point that must be well guarded, but it is also a metonym for the whole house. The house is a strong protection for its inmates, a place of light, warmth and order in contrast to the wild cold darkness outside; and it in turn is a metaphor for the head, in its fullest sense, as the seat of reason, the dwelling-place of our humanity, the capital of our intellectually-constructed world – a Castle of Bone (the title of a fine children’s book by Penelope Farmer, derived, I think, from an Anglo-Saxon kenning); just as we must be careful whom we invite into our house, we should also be wary of what we allow to ‘get into our head’.

The ‘mischief’ that is signified by the sound of the door opening downstairs – in what the listener knows to be an empty house – is no mere burglary: it is the irruption of the irrational, the impossible, the unthinkable – if a door can open without human agency in a house you know to be secure, then anything is possible; none of what you have hitherto trusted unquestioningly holds good. Such epiphanies give the modern ghost story its power: they turn the confident statement ‘that cannot be’ into the doubtful question ‘can such things be?’

Bringing the reader to feel, with the protagonist, that moment of profound self-doubt –  the realisation that the world may not be the realm of enlightened reason that we pretend – is the effect that any modern ghost story must strive for. As James himself remarks, the aim is to

‘put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”’

Casting the Runes is unusual among James’s stories (The Ash Tree is another) in having its protagonist assailed in his own home, though I think that is a good reflection of the malignity of Karswell’s psychic assault. A great many of his stories – a good third – feature inns, and quite a few more are set in large houses where the protagonists are either guests or very recent arrivals; and, for a man who rigorously eschewed any sexual content, there is a remarkable preponderance of bedroom scenes.

That is no accident: inns and other people’s houses are, literally, out of our comfort zone: we do not feel at home there; and as for being in bed, there is no better instance of our outer circumstances coinciding with our inmost self: where else are we more vulnerable, more unguarded, than on the verge of sleep? It is a moment of uncertainty that takes us right back to primeval times, with the wild beasts prowling beyond the cave mouth.

As for religious belief, it plays little part in James’s stories: I can think of only two in which it is used to combat the supernatural, and one of those is an incomplete unpublished fragment. In ‘Canon Alberic’ the presbyterian Dennistoun submits to the popish superstition of wearing the crucifix the sacristan’s daughter gives him for his protection, and it is only when he takes it off that the demon is able to assail him. (The same story has further evidence of James’s sympathy for catholic practice, despite his upbringing and expressedly protestant views – not only is there a beautiful description of the Angelus,

‘A few pulls at the reluctant rope, and the great bell Bertrande, high in the tower, began to speak, and swung her voice up among the pines and down to the valleys, loud with mountain-streams, calling the dwellers on those lonely hills to remember and repeat the salutation of the angel to her whom he called Blessed among women.’

but Dennistoun also arranges ‘saying of Mass and singing of dirges’ for the repose of Alberic’s soul, though he does add  ‘with a touch of the Northern British in his tone, “I had no notion they came so dear.” ‘)

The other story is John Humphreys, an unfinished precursor to Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, in which the eponymous hero combats the demonic assault by recalling a line that transforms the quotation from Job ‘where [there is] the shadow of death, and no order, but everlasting horror dwells’ into the 23rd Psalm ‘though I walk in the shadow of death (no evil shall I fear)’:

‘The only words he could summon were words of fear, that he had read that morning. They droned through his head incessantly, “ubi umbra mortis et nullus ordo sed sempiternus horror inhabitat“. Over and over again they came back and he felt himself being sucked away from the world of men, and indeed he does not see how he could have helped yielding to the strain that was on him, and giving up hope and reason if not life itself, had he not paused on the words umbra mortis. They brought to his mind in a moment the image of some lettering in a brass on a tomb – this is how he puts it – that he had been taken to see years before. “Umbra mortis,” he seemed to say to himself, “to be sure, that was it – etsi ambulavero.” He raised his head and drew breath. “Absurd,” he said again. “Of course that was what I wanted. Dear me. Why couldn’t I think of that before?” The strain was relaxed. He rose to his feet and looked about him: the field was its own familiar self again and the sun bright in the sky. An exaltation of spirit came upon him which he could hardly repress, and he does not know what surprises of laughter and singing he may have inflicted on casual hearers as he went home.’

In two other stories – An Episode of Cathedral History and The Residence at Whitminster, both set in cathedral precincts with a clerical cast – the supernatural threat is accepted as real, but is contained and left alone: the lamia had been safely incarcerated till interference disturbed it (though it is exorcised – successfully, we presume) while Dr Oldys, the Senior Prebendary at Whitminster, frankly admits that the effects of lord Saul are better put safely away in the attic and left undisturbed: discretion and caution, not curiosity, are the proper course, as The Rose Garden also makes clear:  quieta non movere (let sleeping dogs lie). This acceptance and accommodation of the supernatural – basically, acknowledge its power and let it be – does belong to an earlier age: it is the staple of folk tales and ballads, where the devil can be met on the road or may seek entry to your house, but can be guarded against by the proper rituals (as, for instance, outwitting him in a riddle contest, as in The False Knight Upon the Road,

‘I wiss ye were in yon sie,’

quo’ the fause knicht upon the road

‘and a good bottom under me,’

quo’ the wee boy, and still he stood

‘And the bottom for to break’

quo’ the fause knicht upon the road

‘and ye to be drowned’

quo’ the wee boy, and still he stood.

(full variant texts here )

or else by answering his riddles, then naming him, as in ‘riddles wisely expounded

‘Hunger is sharper nor a thorn

and shame is louder nor a horn,

the pies are greener nor the grass

and Clootie’s waur nor a woman was!’

As sune as she the fiend did name

Jennifer gentle an’ Rosemaree

He flew awa in a blazing flame

As the doo flies owre the mulberry tree.’

(slightly variant text here,  and beautifully sung by Jean Redpath here )

But the age in which James is writing is not one to let sleeping dogs (or Lamias) lie; it is the age of boundless curiosity and exploration (the age, let us not forget, of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity (1905 & 1915), of Picasso and Stravinsky, of the birth of much that we think of as modern – the motor car, the aeroplane, the horrors of modern warfare). And though James undoubtedly has a yearning for that earlier age of faith (he was, after all, a mediaevalist to trade) he does not allow it to intrude on his stories or save his characters – Mr Wraxall, in his last extremity

‘…is expecting a visit from his pursuers — how or when he knows not — and his constant cry is ‘What has he done?’ and ‘Is there no hope?’ Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?’

but it avails him naught. What makes James a modern is that his characters have no protection when the fortress of reason crumbles.

* It is even worse than the film version of The Dark is Rising, an excellent book by Susan Cooper, and that is saying something.

**Jennet Humfrye dies 12 years after her son (p.144) and is buried in the same grave (though for some reason the name on the stone is Jennet Drablow) The date of death is 190- (p.105) so her son died, aged 6 (p.143) some 12 years before – 1888 at earliest, 1897 at latest; so he was born between 1882 and 1891. The letters written around the time of his birth date from ‘about sixty years before’ (p.113) the narrator’s visit to Eel Marsh house, putting that event between 1942 and 1951. The death of his wife and son must happen a year or two later – say between 1944 and 1953. When he first sees Monk’s Piece (the name is an allusion to Masefield’s The Box of Delights, the Christmas story par excellence) he has been a widow for 12 years and is 35 (p.11) putting that between 1956 and 1965; ‘some years later’ (p.13) the house comes up for sale and he buys it to live in with his new wife – say 1959 to 1968; at the time the story opens, he has been living there for 14 years (p.14) so it is now somewhere between 1973 and 1982.

The perils and pitfalls of adaptation in the ghost stories of M R James


(‘Young Shepherds at Evening Time’ by Myles Birket Foster)

The usual effect of seeing any film or TV adaptation of a book or story that I like is to send me back to the original, so on that ground alone (assuming I am not the only one so affected) I would say that such adaptations are a good thing. That said, I think that they rarely succeed entirely and are often unsatisfactory; and it is interesting to consider why that should be so.

(This line of thought was stimulated by a discussion on the MR James Appreciation Society group page on Facebook, hence my concentration on James – who is also one of the most-adapted of writers, certainly of ghost stories)

Translating from one medium to another must always come at a price: some things that work on the page do not work on the screen and vice versa. The two most obvious differences between books and films are the constraints of time and the difference of viewpoint.

Most films are somewhere from an hour-and-a-half to three hours long, with around two hours being fairly standard; television is more flexible, since it can broadcast a series of episodes, though as a rule a single programme will be somewhere between half an hour and an hour, occasionally a bit more. A book, on the other hand, can be read at the reader’s own pace, though there is a minimum time that even a fast reader would take and in the case of full-length books it is generally longer than any film. However, in the case of short stories, there is a fairly close approximation between the time it takes to read one and the typical length of a TV programme, so adaptations here might be less problematic in that respect.

As for the viewpoint, there are several points to make. A picture is famously worth a thousand words, and it is certainly true that a scene or description that may take a considerable quantity of text is something that can be shown in a moment on screen. More importantly, film and television depictions are, by their nature, external and objective, whereas writing tends to the internal and subjective. This means that the television adaptation must work harder to achieve the effects that come naturally to the writer – chiefly conveying the characters’ thoughts and feelings, with the latter being of particular importance in ghost stories.

Let us take two instances, both from James, who was an acute observer of certain states of mind, particularly disquiet and anxiety. The first is from an unpublished and incomplete draft of a story called John Humphreys, (the text of which can be found here, on the excellent Ghosts & Scholars website)

‘He felt as well, as unexcitable, as at any time of his life. No, it must be either an accumulation of coincidences or – what was that touching his arm? It might have been a branch, if he had not happened to be in the open field! Whatever it was, the effect was curious: it brought back the dream – he was beginning to think of it as the vision – of the evening before. The homely well known pasture seemed in a moment to widen into an illimitable grey expanse – an acute feeling of extreme loneliness and of being on a hopeless and aimless journey came over him and his whole being cried out for companionship and protection, and yet he felt that there was none, none whatever to be had: he was helpless in a world of hostile shadows. Nothing was interesting any more, nothing was or could be important, and for all that, there was an instant pressure of hurry and no time to stop and think. It was a bitterness of despair which could not, he said, be put into any human words, and he believes he sank down under it and cowered on the ground – fortunately not in sight of any passer-by – and here for how long he couldn’t tell he wrestled for his life and his reason.’

The second is from a published story, A Neighbour’s Landmark: (full text here)

‘I think we must all know the landscapes — are they by Birket Foster, or somewhat earlier?— which, in the form of wood-cuts, decorate the volumes of poetry that lay on the drawing-room tables of our fathers and grandfathers — volumes in ‘Art Cloth, embossed bindings’; that strikes me as being the right phrase. I confess myself an admirer of them, and especially of those which show the peasant leaning over a gate in a hedge and surveying, at the bottom of a downward slope, the village church spire — embosomed amid venerable trees, and a fertile plain intersected by hedgerows, and bounded by distant hills, behind which the orb of day is sinking (or it may be rising) amid level clouds illumined by his dying (or nascent) ray. The expressions employed here are those which seem appropriate to the pictures I have in mind; and were there opportunity, I would try to work in the Vale, the Grove, the Cot, and the Flood. Anyhow, they are beautiful to me, these landscapes, and it was just such a one that I was now surveying. It might have come straight out of Gems of Sacred Song, selected by a Lady and given as a birthday present to Eleanor Philipson in 1852 by her attached friend Millicent Graves. All at once I turned as if I had been stung. There thrilled into my right ear and pierced my head a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified — the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one’s brain. I held my breath, and covered my ear, and shivered. Something in the circulation: another minute or two, I thought, and I return home. But I must fix the view a little more firmly in my mind. Only, when I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields, and when the clock bell in the Church tower struck seven, I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air; and of how someone on a farm a mile or two off would be saying ‘How clear Betton bell sounds tonight after the rain!’; but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’

There is a striking similarity between the two passages, though I feel the second is much superior. In both, the change is wrought in an instant – by a fancied touch in the first, a sound in the second – and the effect is similar: anyone who has felt it will recognise the accuracy of these descriptions of sudden dysphoria, the sense that no pleasure is to be had from anything, and all the goodness has drained out of life. The difference in quality is reflected in the balance of the two pieces: the first is about half the length – 221 words against 428 – and a single sentence suffices to tell Humphreys’ prior feelings: ‘He felt as well… as at any time of his life’ while the description of the sense of bleakness that descends on him runs to some eight lines or more (112 words – more than half the total) and his reaction is extreme and dramatic – perhaps overly so. In the second piece, 215 words is devoted to evoking the mood of ruminative well-being, reinforced by another 69 words after the intrusive noise, which cleverly reprise the mood by saying what is no longer there; the demolition of this carefully-constructed edifice of wellbeing comes in two and a half concentrated lines ( a mere 38 words) at the end: ‘images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life.’

To be fair, their states of mind are not identical – Humphreys is already troubled in the first piece, the narrator of the second is not – but the real point of interest is how either of these could be effectively translated to the screen. The second, in particular, is a very subtle piece of writing, conveying as it does a great deal of the narrator’s character and tastes – he is refined, witty, a scholarly bibliophile inclined to mock his own predilection for conventionally sentimental pictures; it comes as no surprise to find that beneath this contented veneer there lurks a sense of disappointment and loss. It is a passage that epitomises a great deal of the pleasure to be had from reading James, and it is hard to see how that subtlety could be satisfactorily translated to the screen.

For a start, the actual supernatural element – ‘a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified’ – is not at once recognised as such – it is dismissed as ‘Something in the circulation’ – in other words, he takes it to be subjective, inside his head, only to realise – when it is repeated an instant later – that it is objective, external. On screen, the first presentation of the sound (which the viewer would have to hear too) will inevitably seem objective and dramatic – we will feel at once that it is significant – so that its depressing effect, even if it could be conveyed (by the light going off the landscape, say, accompanied by an expression of disappointment), will be overwhelmed and lost.

So much for technical difficulties caused by the difference in medium; much more could be said, but I hope I have highlighted some of the key problems. However, there is another aspect I would like to consider, one that has a particular bearing on James, and that is the matter of faithfulness to the original.

The question that arises here has a much broader application, and indeed applies to any adaptation: it is not simply how far one is obliged to be faithful to the original, but rather what ‘being faithful to the original’ actually consists of. The initial thought is that you ought simply to follow the letter of the original as closely as possible: you should have the same characters, in the same setting, at the same period, with the same action and dialogue; then surely you can’t go wrong?

But as soon as you attempt this approach, you will find it is not so simple. I may discuss this more fully some other time, but fundamentally, the way you tell a story in writing and the way you tell it on the screen are different, so in order to tell the same story you actually have to go about it in a different way. This then raises the question of what makes it the same story – and here, in contrast to the previous approach, we are aiming for faithfulness not to the letter but to the spirit.

An illustration: recently, the MR James Appreciation Society page carried a link to a fine adaptation of James’s The Mezzotint. It is called The Photograph, and is by Tim Hall – it can be viewed here (and is well worth a look). Yet in it, no single detail of the original survives: it is set not only in a different time and place, but another continent, with different characters and a different back-story, yet for all that, I would call it a faithful adaptation, and a good one, too. We can see this if we strip away the flesh from the skeleton, so to speak, and move from the specific details – which differ – to the underlying general structure, which is identical in all respects that matter.

The supernatural agency is the same: both versions centre on a picture that changes, and in changing tells a story; in the original, it is a mezzotint; in the adaptation, a digital image stored on a camera. The story in each case is of an injustice (inflicted by the powerful on the weak, as it generally is) avenged from beyond the grave, the vengeance in both cases being the taking (and presumed destruction) of an infant. In the original, a poacher (of an old but impoverished family) is hanged by the Squire and his line is extinguished; his ghost retaliates by ending the Squire’s line by making away with his sole heir. In the adaptation, the larger crime of genocide against Native Americans is the injustice that is similarly avenged. In both cases, once the story has been told and ‘witnessed’ it ends: the mezzotint does not change again; the digital picture is simply lost from the file.

This, I think, is a good case of preserving the essentials, and the spareness of the adaptation – there is nothing superfluous there, no speech at all – is a key component to its success: it is hard to imagine a full-blown TV adaptation daring to be so economical in its narrative.

By contrast, the adaptation which provoked the original Facebook page discussion – the version of ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you ’ with John Hurt – preserves nothing at all that is essential to the original, and as several people pointed out, were the link not expressly made with the James story in the title and the presentation, few would think to make it.

I am grateful to Wikipedia for the following plot summary, as the details of the Hurt version had become vague in my recollection, though my sense of it as unsatisfactory remains strong:

‘In this version, retired astronomer James Parkin goes on a respite holiday after leaving his aged wife (who appears to be in the advanced stages of senile dementia) in a care home. When revisiting one of their favourite coastal towns during the off-season, he discovers a wedding ring on the beach, which he keeps. The ring is inscribed (as was the whistle in the original story) with the Latin words for “Who is this, who is coming?” (though in this version, Parkin wrongly translates it as “What is this thing that’s coming?”). Parkin reads the words out loud. He then sees a white clad figure in the distance on the beach, but as he walks away, the figure has got closer to him each time he turns to look back. Panicking, he then runs back to the hotel he is staying at.

Later that night, he is awoken by scratching noises and somebody trying to enter his hotel room, but the following morning he is told that he was actually alone in the hotel all night with no other guests or even staff present. Though his academic mind refuses to acknowledge the existence of the spiritual or supernatural (he refuses to believe in the idea of his wife’s spirit being trapped in her almost functionless body like a “ghost in the machine”), he becomes increasingly uneasy during the remainder of his stay at the hotel and makes plans to leave.

The night before he is due to depart, he is once again awoken in the night by noises at his door, sending him into a panic. This time, a spectral apparition enters his room from underneath the door. Parkin shuts his eyes in terror and implores the apparition to leave him alone, but as he opens his eyes he sees a figure sitting on the end of his bed. The figure appears to be his wife, who says over and over again “I’m still here” as Parkin tries in vain to escape. The following morning, Parkin lies dead in his bed, while his wife is no longer to be seen at the care home.’

I remember thinking at the time that this was quite a moving story in its own right – and Hurt is ever a watchable actor – but that its association with James was both unwarranted and unnecessary: unnecessary, as it was good enough to stand on its own, and unwarranted, because (unlike the Mezzotint example above) it preserved nothing that was essential to the original, so that the incidental details it did preserve (a similarity in the setting and the manner of the supernatural visitation) seemed gratuitous and even baffling.

The original James story (full text here) sits in the same category as A Warning to the Curious and Count Magnus: all three concern people who meddle with what would have been better left alone and pay a heavy price, though Parkins (his name in the original – why the slight change in spelling in the adaptation?) at least escapes with his life, though his scientific rationalism is severely shaken. The Hurt story is about personal grief and guilt, so the fact of his being a rational scientific academic has no bearing – what shakes Parkins is that the terrifying manifestation he experiences seems to be the result of his having blown the whistle, a possibility he cannot countenance; in the Hurt story, Parkin has ample cause to be troubled in his mind – grief and guilt – but why this should result in a spectral manifestation that pursues him down the beach is anyone’s guess.

Indeed, it is notable that the Hurt version actually conflates two separate incidents in the James original: as Parkins is walking home, having found the whistle,

‘One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars’ church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people’s fancy at some time of their childhood. “Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.” “What should I do now,” he thought, “if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it. Luckily, the gentleman behind is not of that kind, and he seems to be about as far off now as when I saw him first. Well, at this rate he won’t get his dinner as soon as I shall; and, dear me! it’s within a quarter of an hour of the time now. I must run!”

His ‘I must run’ is jocular: in a typically Jamesian touch, what he has seen makes less impression on him than on the reader, who already thinks it rather more than a late-evening stroller on the beach. It is when Parkins has retired to bed – after having blown the whistle and experienced a sudden blast of wind that blows the window open – that his imagination conjures the image of a man pursued by a spectre along the beach:

‘What he saw was this:

A long stretch of shore–shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water–a scene, in fact, so like that of his afternoon’s walk that, in the absence of any landmark, it could not be distinguished therefrom. The light was obscure, conveying an impression of gathering storm, late winter evening, and slight cold rain. On this bleak stage at first no actor was visible. When, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared; a moment more, and it was a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened, though his face was not to be distinguished. He was, moreover, almost at the end of his strength. On he came; each successive obstacle seemed to cause him more difficulty than the last. “Will he get over this next one?” thought Parkins; “it seems a little higher than the others.” Yes; half climbing, half throwing himself, he did get over, and fell all in a heap on the other side (the side nearest to the spectator). There, as if really unable to get up again, he remained crouching under the groyne, looking up in attitude of painful anxiety.

So far no cause whatever for the fear of the runner had been shown; but now there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself toward the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying. The moment came when the pursuer was hovering about from left to right only a few yards beyond the groyne where the runner lay in hiding. After two or three ineffectual castings hither and thither it came to a stop, stood upright, with arms raised high, and then darted straight forward towards the groyne.

It was at this point that Parkins always failed in his resolution to keep his eyes shut. With many misgivings as to incipient failure of eyesight, overworked brain, excessive smoking, and so on, he finally resigned himself to light his candle, get out a book, and pass the night waking, rather than be tormented by this persistent panorama, which he saw clearly enough could only be a morbid reflection of his walk and his thoughts on that very day.’

There is a certain irony in the fact that James makes better use of the cinematic form in conveying Parkins’s waking dream than the TV version does in trying to realise his story. Much of the effect here depends on the reader’s being several steps ahead of Parkins, who still feels secure in his rational explanation that what he is experiencing is no more than the result of overexcitement: it is our flesh that creeps, not his. Compared to that, having Hurt/Parkin actually believe himself pursued by an ambiguous figure, to the point of panic, seems crude and unconvincing.

And the ambiguity of the ending – which I had forgotten – muddies things still further. The source of Hurt/Parkin’s grief is that his wife, though physically present, is effectively absent: she is almost the opposite of a ghost, a living person who is actually dead. If she is ‘still here’ then the implication is that she is still alive, trapped in her failing body, hence his guilt; but if she is now dead, and her death has in some way coincided with the events Hurt/Parkin experiences, in what sense is she ‘still here’? On the contrary, she is no longer trapped, and has nothing to be resentful about; and if Hurt dies as a result, then he too is free and no longer haunted by grief, guilt or anything else.

It seems to me that where this story is at its weakest is precisely where the writer has tried to preserve some connection with the James original: the full potential of the writer’s own conception – a man haunted by the loss of his wife to dementia – is constrained and distorted by an ill-advised and unnecessary attempt to fit it somehow – anyhow – to the framework of the James original.

My own surmise is that the tale was commissioned as an M R James adaptation to draw on the established tradition of broadcasting his stories at Christmas, so had to be presented as such, but that the writer could not make it work – and why that might have been is matter for another day – but I have no doubt that it would have been better had it been freed entirely from any Jamesian connection.

This is a topic to which I shall return.

City of Desolation, Chapter 21: Across the Abyss

Jake’s attempt to cross the nightmare bridge began badly and soon got worse. So steep was the initial descent that the only way to do it was to clamber down ladder-fashion,using the wooden slats as rungs. Unfortunately, the slats were too wide to grip easily with his hands, while the gaps between them were too narrow to admit his feet beyond the slightest edge of the tip of his toe: every change of position was an agonising fumble for a toe-hold while his fingers clung desperately to the rough wood.

He had not gone far when he missed his footing altogether, hung for a moment with his full weight supported by the extremes of his fingers, then went rasping and slithering downwards at great speed, his whole body pummelled by the undulating slats, his chin abraded and his fingers lacerated by the friction of his fall. As he slid backwards down the narrow track an even greater fear came on him, that any attempt to stop himself by catching at the ropes on one side or the other would skew him sideways and sling him off the bridge altogether to leave him hanging over the void.

When at length the easing of the slope slowed him and he was able to bring himself to a stop, he looked up and saw that he had come a long way: the ledge where the bridge began was high above him and seemed very far away. He lay for a long time face down, clinging to the walkway, unable to slacken his grip in the paralysis of fear.

When finally he moved again it was by crawling backwards, as he did not dare turn round or attempt to stand lest he should slip in doing so and fall through the space at the side of the bridge: he could not bring himself to abandon the reassuring solidity of the slats.

After an age of miserably slow progress, he forced himself to kneel, then pulled
himself upright and at last, with infinite slowness – his knuckles white with gripping the side ropes – he manoeuvred himself round to face the way he was going.

The sight made his head reel and his stomach heave: he had come scarcely a quarter of the way across. In front of him, the bridge swooped down to its lowest point, then rose up, up, up with a steepness almost vertical to the huge dark rampart ahead. All about him yawned the abyss: he dared not look down.

He stood a long time,completely daunted, unable to put one foot in front of the other.

In the end, it was the rain that came to his rescue: it began as a chill drizzle, but soon developed into a battering downpour that drenched him to the skin and cut off any view beyond a couple of feet with a hissing curtain of wet. Cocooned in drenching misery, he shuffled onwards, fearing to raise his feet from the slippery slats.

Soon he was chilled to the bone and could think of nothing beyond the mechanical action of moving his arms and legs: he could not tell if he was even making progress; for all he knew he might be stationary, his hands and feet slipping constantly in an illusion of forward motion.

The wet cold must have numbed his imagination too, and with it his fear, because
when he came to a point in the bridge where the slats were missing and the void gaped a footstep in front of him, all that occurred to him was that now he must either turn back, or work his way along the side, his feet on the lower rope, his hands on the upper.

Since there was no question of going back, it was a simple matter of logic that
he must make his way along the slippery swaying rope, and he set out to do so in the same dogged manner that had driven him on through the rain. Some way in he found that a length of the footrope was missing, so he swung his legs up over the handrope and inched his way along it, hanging upside-down over the abyss.

There was a tricky moment extricating himself at the other end where the slats resumed – the bridge began to sway alarmingly as he shifted his weight, and for a time all he could do was hang on until the oscillations ceased.

He was by now on the upward slope, and the greatest challenge lay ahead, where the final ascent of the bridge grew steeper and steeper, so that at some point he would have to make the decision to scale it like a ladder. Before he could block it out, the memory came back to him of what had happened on the descent, and he had an excruciating vision of himself slipping back perpetually when he reached a certain point, until he became too tired to continue, and finally let himself slip headlong into the emptiness below.

He wondered if perhaps he ought to rest, but the fear of turning over in his sleep and rolling off into the void so terrified him that he decided to press

When he reached the critical point, he took off his shoes and hung them around his neck, reasoning that his bare toes would make more of the minimal holds available. Whether because of that, or perhaps because the slats were more widely spaced, he found he made better progress on this side – he had also evolved the technique of gripping the ends of the slats with his hands, which gave a surer purchase – but the fear of slipping was always on him, and it grew as the steepness of the slope increased.

Now he had to revert to curling his fingers over the top of the slats again, and his whole world, his entire existence, was reduced to the repetition of the same
sequence of tiny movements: right hand, left hand; right foot, left foot; right hand, left hand –

Then his right foot missed its toehold and flung him off balance so that his right hand slipped too and for the space of a heartbeat he hung one handed, his toes scrabbling to regain their hold, and then he saw that he could not support his weight in that position and for a full second before it happened he knew he must fall.

In that second a voice in his head told him plainly and calmly that his only hope was to abandon the slats altogether and try to catch the ropes that joined the bridge deck to the hand-ropes, which were like the rungs of a rope ladder, but too far apart to use for one; he saw that he must twist to one side or the other as he fell in order to grab at them –

and then he did fall, and his foot encountered a side rope almost at once and slipped off it again, so that he came down painfully straddling it, but with one hand gripping the hand-rope, so that he was able to hang on, though he could not prevent himself from swinging far out into space: the shoes round his neck unwound and he saw them falling, falling, falling until they were the merest speck – and for a space it was as if some part of him had fallen with the shoes, and was falling still, looking up at the bridge and the boy who clung there.

For a long time he sat astride the rope, cursing and weeping by turns, too terrified to move; then he fell silent, and saw that he had a choice: he could let go now, and follow his shoes down into the darkness below (were they still falling? What would it be like to fall so far, for so long?) or he could resume his climb, and keep going until he reached the top or his strength gave out.

All right, I’ll do that, he said, as if there was someone else there who had actually offered him these choices and was waiting for his reply. He imagined this person’s being pleased at his decision, and proceeded to explain to him how he was going to manage it – I’ll get a hold with my left hand, here, then move my left foot here – then I can pull myself up until my right foot is on the rope, and I can put my right hand up there –

It was simple, really: all he had to do was keep on repeating the same movements, concentrating all the time, and he must surely get somewhere in the end.

And in the end, he did: at last there was no more bridge to reach for, but instead a hard, sharp lip of rock, onto which he pulled himself gratefully and with a final effort dragged himself away from the edge before collapsing into an exhausted slumber.

When the rain woke him, he had no notion of how long he had been asleep – it might have been days, or only minutes – at any rate, it had been long enough for him to recover sufficient strength to stand up and propel himself along the broad stone roadway in the lashing rain.

As he went, the feeling of solid ground beneath his bare feet sustained him: whatever might lie ahead, he told himself, it could scarcely be any worse than he had already gone through on the bridge. He wondered, looking down at his toes, if his shoes were still falling.

He had followed the roadway through the vast arched tunnels that pierced the
buttresses twice already and could see the third looming up ahead when he was forced to a halt: the road in front of him was riven by a huge fissure hundreds of yards across; from far below he could hear the roar of water, and thought he could just make out, a lighter patch on the darkness, a cloud of vapour spray.

The wall on his right hand side was pierced at intervals by doorways, and to the first of these he now retraced his steps. He passed through a short tunnel, its roof just a little way above his head, its walls in easy touching distance; it ended in a flight of steps leading downward.

Don’t go down, Ulysses had said, but Jake could see no alternative. He went
cautiously down the steps and soon emerged onto a flat stone pavement. His first
thought was that although he had come indoors, as he imagined, it was still raining; his next was that the depth of darkness was less here – a sort of murky brown twilight prevailed, and he felt sure that if he gave his eyes time to adjust, he would be able to see his surroundings.

He stood and waited in the drizzling rain.

As his vision cleared, he saw that the rain was very localised, and indeed seemed to be falling only where he was: he took a few steps to the side, and found himself in the dry. Looking up, he saw that the shower of drops seemed to issue from a leak somewhere high above.

He was standing on a long stone pavement reminiscent of a railway platform, but beside it, where the railway should have been, there was a canal of dark water, bounded on the other side by a low parapet: there was empty space beyond. In the brownish murk – it was like being inside an old sepia photograph – he could just make out that he was on the edge of a great ravine or gulf on the other side of which was another vast stepped rampart like the one outside; but here, the space
between was not empty, but criss-crossed by a fantastic network of stone bridges
supported by impossibly tall arches. These were at every level: looking up, he could make out at least four layers above him; looking down, he saw that the bridges were in fact aqueducts, carrying canals across the gulf – there were perhaps half-a-dozen layers or more visible below.

To one side of the platform, he saw that the steps he had descended continued in a downward spiral; the other side ended some way off in a blank wall. Looking at the dark waters of the canal, he wondered what manner of craft travelled on them, and for what purpose.

As he watched, his eye was caught by something on the surface, and he saw that it was a raft of debris, a kind of mat of twigs and rubbish. What struck him
was that it was moving, very slowly but quite definitely, to the left.

He knew enough about canals to realise that was unusual: they were supposed to be level, without any current. Was it possible that in this incredible place the canals were tilted very slightly, in one direction or the other, to create a current that boats could move along?

As he was wrestling with the stupendous feat of engineering that would be necessary to create such a system, as if to confirm his surmise, a dim light appeared to his right and he saw that it was on the bow of a barge, the head of a long train of them, that was slowly gliding towards him.

Avoid the canals, Ulysses had said. Don’t go down.

It seemed now that he could only avoid the canal by taking the spiral stair, which certainly went down a lot more rapidly than the canal; and the canal at least went to the left. He crossed the platform and clambered on board the slow moving train of barges, settling himself in the bow, behind the light.

He must have fallen asleep again: when he woke, he was in darkness, though up ahead a weak horseshoe of light hung like an arch for the barge to pass through, only it never seemed to draw any closer. Had they stopped moving altogether? He reached up his hand and it brushed rough stone: he must be in a tunnel. The light ahead was thrown by the bowlamp; it served only to deepen the darkness around it, and gave no gauge of whether they were moving or stationary.

He reached up again, letting his hand trail against the roof, and in time became convinced that they were still moving, though very slowly.

So we will get there eventually, he told himself: I am in a long dark tunnel, but it must end sometime, and I will come out into the light. He visualised the end of the tunnel up ahead: a pinpoint of light that would slowly grow until it assumed the shape of an arch, gradually becoming larger as it drew nearer: even when it was still very far off, he would be able to see it, and would know that the tunnel must end eventually.

So there is always hope, he told himself, and settled back to wait.

As he sat crosslegged, eyes gazing into the darkness, he must have passed into some sort of trance-like state: he seemed to have become detached from his body, so that he now heard his own breathing as if it was a little to one side of him. The sensation was odd, and rather disturbing; it made him catch his breath to think of it – and when he did, the breathing beside him carried on.

There was someone sitting beside him in the dark.

Fear like paralysing cold washed over his scalp, then encased his neck and chest: he found it difficult to breathe. Who or what was beside him? He feared to reach out his hand, dreading what it might encounter – what if it was something scaly, or worse, covered in hair? He shuddered. Then a voice spoke, close to his ear.

– I don’t think this tunnel comes to an end, do you?

It was a slightly hoarse, insinuating voice – not pleasant, but the fact that whatever it was could talk filled Jake with relief. This lessening of his fear made him bold enough to answer

– Every tunnel has an end.

– Not this one: it goes down and down into the dark.

Something in the tone of the voice, and also the situation, stirred a memory of long, long ago: he had just started school and was sitting on a wall at playtime when another boy came and sat beside him and began talking, in the same sort of pretend-friendly way, about all sorts of bloodcurdling things.

He’s trying to frighten me,thought Jake, and the scale of his fear reduced still further: he knew how to play this game.

– How do you know? he asked.

– I live here

– So do I, ventured Jake.

The response was a low laugh.

– You do now.

– You wouldn’t know if a tunnel had no end, because you’d never reach it to
find out – you’d just keep on travelling.

– What do you think we’re doing now? asked the voice.

Jake began to feel slightly unnerved.

– The only way it could have no end is if it’s circular, he said firmly, and even then it must have an end because it had a beginning.

– What makes you think that?

– I remember going into it, back there.

Despite the dark, he gestured behind him.

– You’ve been asleep.

Jake did not quite know what to make of this sudden change of direction.

– So?

– So all that about going into the tunnel could have been a dream.

– It wasn’t!

– If you think about it, that’s just what you would dream about if you were
caught in an endless tunnel.

– I didn’t dream it! he shouted.

Jake could hear the note of desperation in his own voice. The insidious thought crept into his mind that the voice might be right – how did he know how long he had been here in the dark? How could he be sure that everything he thought he remembered was not just a dream he had just wakened up from? Perhaps he had done this before –

perhaps this was all he did – travelled in the dark, slept for a time and dreamed, woke and travelled on.

– How do you know you didn’t dream it? asked the voice.

He tried to be calm. He’s just winding you up, he told himself, like your brother used to do coming home from church when he would say he had the doorkey even though you knew you had it in your pocket, but he managed to sound so certain that you got angrier and angrier and always ended up pulling it out of your pocket to show him, and then you felt a fool because he’d made you do it, just by his tone of voice –

this recollection cheered him. I didn’t dream that, he thought: part of him could still feel the intense frustration of all those years ago, though he could laugh at it now. He did laugh, aloud. Two can play at that game, he thought.

– But the tunnel has an end now, he asserted boldly. I just made it have one: I

can do that, with my mind. I just think of a thing and there it is.

– Where is it then?

Was it just his fancy, or did the voice seem a little less sure of itself?

– Just up ahead.

– I don’t see it.

– Wait and see, he said, as smugly as he could.

And it is there, he told himself: every tunnel has an end, like a little pinpoint of light that slowly gets bigger. Instead of straining his eyes into the dark, he closed them, and concentrated on the pinpoint of light in his mind’s eye. It gets bigger and bigger, he told himself, until you begin to be able to make out its shape, like an inverted shield hung there in front of you –

a slight, disgruntled sound from his invisible companion made him open his eyes again. There ahead, just as he had imagined it, was the shield of light. Soon the interior of the tunnel had lightened enough to allow him to make out the brickwork overhead, and at last the train of barges emerged into the open again.

He turned and saw that his companion was a boy who, by his size, was younger than he was; but his face had a wizened, aged look, and for a moment Jake wondered if he was a boy at all and not some kind of midget. He was swathed in rags, and his skin was filthy.

– I was just joking about the tunnel, he said.

– I know, said Jake.

– Are you going to the city?

– Yes.

– It’s lucky you’ve got me with you then – this is where you want to get off, just up here.

The barge was gliding in alongside another platform, with stairs leading down from it, though none, as far as Jake could make out, leading up.

– Well, hop off then, if you’re for the city, said his wizened companion. That
stair on the left is the quickest way.

His voice was friendly, even warm. Jake considered. Avoid the canals and don’t go down. He shook his head.

– I don’t think so, he said.

– You’d better jump now, or you’ll miss it, said the other.

– Nah.

– I’m telling you, this is the stop for the city! his tone was harsher now.

– Changed my mind, said Jake. Don’t think I’ll go to the city after all.

His companion lapsed into a sulk.

– That’s what you think, he said after a time. I was just joking you – the city’s still up ahead: the canal stops there. You can’t go any further.

– I know, said Jake, with infuriating sweetness.

They entered another short tunnel from which they emerged into a vast space like a railway terminus: overhead there was a huge vaulted roof of steel and glass, while on the ground canals like flooded railway lines ended in long channels between platforms. Everywhere there was a great bustle of unloading and movement, and Jake was in no doubt that this must be his objective: only the proximity of a great city could generate this kind of activity.

– Over there, said his companion, emerging from his sulk. Go left!

Jake saw that the canal branched up ahead, like a letter Y; further on, each branch also forked, so that the approach was like a river delta.

– left, left! yelled his companion.

– How? shouted Jake.

– The tiller!

He pointed back: Jake saw that there was indeed a long tiller arm that came almost the length of the barge. He jumped up on the canopy had put it hard over.

– No, no! The other way – push it right to go left!

– Sorry! said Jake, wrenching it back in embarrassment.

The bow caught in the jaws of the left hand channel; the barge bounced from one wall to the other, then slid in. His companion made a contemptuous noise.

– Where’d you learn to steer?

Jake, on his mettle, was determined to do better next time.

– What way now? he asked.

– Just keep going left. The terminal we want is on the far side.

He made a better job of it this time, though he still scraped along one side. He

concentrated furiously at the next branch, and made a clean entry. He grinned in

triumph at his companion, who grinned back.

– This is it coming up, he shouted. I’ll go astern to unhitch – you steer the barge into the caisson.

– The what?

– The caisson, shouted the other, darting nimbly along to the other end of the
barge. That big iron thing at the end of the line!

Looking ahead, Jake saw that the canal divided once more, into two branches of
unequal length: the left-hand one was shorter, and seemed to terminate in a big iron tub that was open at one end; the right-hand one ran past this, ending in a solid gate.

– Which one is it? Jake yelled back.

– Left! Left! came the shouted reply.

Jake steered left, and felt the barge move forward with a sudden lurch: looking back,he saw that his companion had detached the train and tied it to a bollard, so that he was now moving alone into the waiting dock. He took particular care in steering a centre course and was pleased to enter without touching either side; however, there was no way of stopping the forward motion, and he had to be content to run into the far end of the caisson, which he did with a resounding boom.

At almost the same moment, he was aware of a whirring noise behind him, and looking round he saw an iron gate descend to block off the entrance: he was now floating in what was effectively a giant bathtub. He looked round for his companion and saw him come running up, grinning and waving. Jake gestured to him to come aboard, but instead he turned aside to a huge lever – taller than he was – on which he swung with all his might.

There was a rumble of machinery; the tub jolted, slopping the water so that the
barge dunted the side. For a moment, Jake could not work out what was happening,
then the motion became unmistakable: the entire caisson, barge and all, was rolling sideways down a steep ramp.

– What’s this? he yelled to the figure who stood beside the lever, a grin splitting his face.

– It’s called an incline plane, he shouted back, gleefully. It takes you down!

– Down where?

But the caisson was descending at such speed that the boy was lost to view over the top of the ramp; Jake clung to the side of the barge in terror. He thought he heard a distant shout of ‘just joking you!’ from above as he plunged away.

He had been descending for some time, without slackening speed, when he became
aware of a noise coming up to meet him – a mechanical rumble, overlaid with voices shrieking. All at once another caisson swung up from the darkness below and shot past him on a parallel track, the barge it was carrying laden with figures like the wizened boy, hooting and jabbering and pointing scornfully at Jake. As their caisson climbed away from him, they leaned over the side and waved to him in mocking farewell.

He shot downwards into the dark.

Stories: the Odyssey and Ulysses

Stories are tales of the past recounted in the present. Each of these elements – the past, the recounting, the present –  is important to an understanding of how stories work. In storytelling, the important relation is not between the story and its original (a mistake moderns are increasingly prone to make) but between the audience and the story.

All stories wear the guise of being about something that has happened – ‘once upon a time’ – and in an age obsessed with journalism and news-reporting, this can mislead us. We can too readily suppose that for the story to be ‘true’ it must correspond as precisely as possible to a set of actual events – ‘what really happened’ – and the closer the correspondence, the truer the story will be; but this is a misunderstanding.

The past is inaccessible: you cannot go there. Nothing exists in the past. Life is lived in the present. The Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, our Neanderthal cousins – all lived, as we do, in the present. Stories are about what happened ‘once upon a time’ but they are told or read in the present and in the present is where they do their work.

In truth, a story has no relation to actual events. Was there a prince of Ithaca called Odysseus who went to the Trojan war and took a long time coming back? It does not matter. There was a place called Troy, certainly, and doubtless there was a war (that is one thing you can rely on: men fighting) and Ithaca – which is a real island, though not perhaps the one now called by that name – likely had a Prince, and his name could well have been Odysseus.

But did he dally with the nymph Calypso on Ogygia after being shipwrecked in the culmination of a series of adventures that saw him escape the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, steer between the monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis, hear the sirens sing, see his men turned to swine by a sorceress, and visit Hell along the way?

The question is a foolish one. A story stands or falls by what is in it, not its relation to something outside it. What is true about the Odyssey is the character of Odysseus, the resourceful man: he deals with life – particularly in adversity – as we feel a man ought to – he is bold, but not reckless; he takes risks but shows judgement: the sirens are worth taking risks to hear. He shows the proper attitude to life, making the best of it and bearing up under adversity.

What matters is that he gets the better of Polyphemus, that he finds a way past Scylla and Charybdis, that he contrives a means to hear the Sirens sing and yet not perish – it is not the specific nature of the obstacles, but the fact he overcomes them that matters. That is what heartens us, encourages us as human beings.

Life is an Odyssey: even everyday life. That is what James Joyce’s Ulysses tells us: the two need to be considered together; they shed light on each other, and on what storytelling is all about.

an extract from City of Desolation : Chapter 19 – Virgil

(for an audio version of this piece, click here)
There was sand in his mouth and someone was pulling his arm. He tried to open his eyes, but they seemed to be stuck together. Then whoever was pulling his arm turned him on his back and water that had been in his mouth ran down his throat and made him choke. He put up a hand to wipe his eyes and encountered something scaly and slippery which made him recoil in horror. A voice above him made concerned, soothing noises and when at last he forced his eyes open, Jake saw an old man standing over him holding a long streamer of brown seaweed in one hand.

He struggled to sit up and the man stooped to help him, supporting his shoulders. He looked around: he was on a beach that stretched out of sight in both directions; the sea in front of him showed an oily, sinister calm. The beach was deserted. The high-tide mark was strewn with sea weed, driftwood and flotsam. It was a melancholy place. He looked up at the man, and found him melancholy too. He was old and defeated-looking: his face had once been handsome and still kept traces of nobility and dignity that made his present hopelessness all the more poignant. Seeing Jake sitting up and apparently uninjured, he seemed to decide that his role was ended, and he turned and began to shuffle away.

– Wait! called Jake, spitting out a quantity of sand.

The old man stopped without turning round. Jake struggled to his feet.

– Wait! What is your name? Where is this place?

The old man turned now, and Jake could almost see his brain working: he pictured ancient rusty cogs engaging, grating harshly, long disused.

– My …name? I have one, I’m sure…it will come to me presently. And this place? It is…the place where we find ourselves.

Highly informative, thought Jake. He began to think the old man was a bit wandered in his wits. How did I get here? he thought. For a moment his mind was entirely blank, and then it came back to him: he had been in a boat that had capsized in a storm; he had been sure that was the end of him, yet here he was. But where was here? And why had he come? The thought sent his hand to his pocket, and he was immediately reassured to find the package still there: he drew it out and examined it: the wrappings were intact, and it had suffered remarkably little from immersion in the sea.

He became aware of the old man’s gaze on him and looked up sharply, suddenly suspicious. The old man continued to gaze at the package and at Jake with candid interest, his whole look subtly transformed – as if a spark had kindled in the ashes of a cold hearth.

– You have…a mission? asked the man.
– Yes. I have to give this to someone.

The old man’s face took on an inward look, as if he was striving to retrieve something from far, far back in his memory.

– If you have a mission, then I must help you, he said at last.

Jake looked at him in surprise.

– I have done it before, he said. It was long ago.

He stared out to sea, remembering.

– Maro, he said at length.

– Pardon?
– I was of Maro: Virgil was my name. I was a poet.

They trudged up the beach in the direction of the dunes.

– There was another – with a mission, I mean. He was a poet too.

He sat on the slope of a dune, shaking his head. Jake imagined flakes of rust falling from the machinery of his memory.

– All this was long ago. Much has changed since then.

The old man looked into Jake’s face, as if he might find the answer he was seeking written there. Then he smiled – a slow, uncertain smile, as if he had forgotten how.

– Dante, that was his name. Dante Alighieri. I was his guide.

Jake smiled back at him.

– Would you guide me, too?

The old man shook his head, sighing.

– Alas, I cannot. So much has changed now – it is all different. I would not know the way.

He stood up, and moved to the top of the dune, beckoning Jake to follow.

Jake had not known what to expect, but it wasn’t this. Beyond the dune, a dreary prospect of grey, uniform houses stretched in every direction under a brooding sky, filling a broad plain that rose to higher ground in the remote distance, where Jake thought he could make out the walls of what seemed like a fortress or citadel; there was a suggestion of a taller tower in the middle of it, with a red light at the top which flashed intermittently, as if signalling.

– All this used to be fields, said Virgil. The fields of Elysium. We were happy here, in our quiet way. He shook his head dolefully. But that was long ago.

Jake saw that off to the right – the opposite side from the distant fortress – there was a low hill, where among ancient ruins a sort of squalid shanty town had sprung up, composed of makeshift buildings haphazardly assembled from all sorts of materials. The smoke of many fires went up from it, obscuring the land behind, which rose in steep high cliffs. Virgil followed the line of his gaze.

– That’s where most of the ancients are now, he said. Still beyond the pale, of course.

He nodded towards the base of the dune, and Jake saw that there was a high wall topped with a coil of barbed wire between them and the grey houses. Virgil had begun to walk along the top of the dune in the direction of the shanty town. Jake followed.

– I stay mostly on the beach, myself. There’s a rougher crowd have moved in there. (he indicated the shanty dwellings) It used to be all philosophers and poets, but now there’s a lot that used to be further in – in the Old City, I mean – but they seem to have got out, somehow. Order is breaking down everywhere. The authorities don’t seem to bother with the older population now. I’m not sure just how much of that is still inhabited.

Jake looked in the direction of his nod and saw that a change in the wind had blown the smoke away to reveal that what he had taken for a cliff rising behind the shanty town was actually an enormous rampart, the first of a series that mounted like giant steps up and up until they were lost in obscurity. Here and there the masonry was riven with great cracks, and the whole wore an air of ancient decay and neglect.

– If you come down this way, I can take you to the gate-house. That’s as much as I can manage, I’m afraid.

Jake followed him down a path that wound steeply down the grassy slope and presently joined a broader way that ran from the shanty town on the hill towards a large opening in the wall that surrounded the sprawl of houses. As they drew closer, Jake saw that the opening was guarded by a low blockhouse.

– I’ll speak to them first – they can be… awkward, sometimes.

The room they entered was notably bare: the walls were naked concrete blocks, not even whitewashed. A large counter ran the full width of the room: behind it stood two men in buff-coloured work-coats, one very large, the other small and wiry. Though evidently unoccupied, they paid no heed to Jake or Virgil when they entered, and when Virgil rapped on the counter to attract their attention, they went through an elaborate pantomime, looking first at each other, then at every other part of the room (including the high corners, as if someone might be perched up there) before finally deigning to notice the man who stood right in front of them.

– Yes? said the small wiry one.

The other began rooting under the counter, and produced in turn a huge leather-bound ledger, which he opened, an old fashioned inkstand, and a jar with a number of pens. A door behind him opened and a third man appeared, wearing a dark uniform with shiny buttons, like a policeman’s. This man paid no heed to anyone but went to the far end of the counter, where Jake saw there was a small washstand, with a mirror. The man took off his tunic and hung it on a peg, then bent low, making the motions that go with removing boots. All the while, he whistled tunelessly through his teeth.

– My young friend here wishes to go further in, said Virgil.
– Does he though? said the small man. What do you think of that?

The second question was addressed to his partner, who made no response, but continued to fiddle with the pens, as if looking for one that suited him. Jake saw that they were the old-fashioned sort, that needed to be dipped in ink.

– Well, if you can just let me have your details, said the wiry one to Virgil.

– But it is not I who wish to go, protested Virgil
– That’s as may be, said the other. I take it you are prepared to vouch for the boy?
– Er – certainly, said Virgil.
– Well, in that case, you’d best give me your details then, hadn’t you? said the other triumphantly, as if he had scored a point.
– Very well, said Virgil wearily. Virgil Maro, Poet.
– Marrow, eh? That’s a kind of vegetable, isn’t it?

Virgil sighed. The large man, having at last chosen a pen, wrote something in the register, very slowly, his tongue protruding from concentration.

– Have you got that, then?
The other pushed the register over to him. The wiry man read it, and shook his head.
– What did you say your name was?
– Virgil Maro.
– That’s not what it says here.

Virgil looked at him in exasperation. Jake saw to his surprise that the third man was now removing his trousers, which he folded neatly and hung beside his tunic.

– What it says here is “Vegetable Marrow”.

He turned the book for them to see: Jake saw that it did indeed say that, written in a large looping script, peppered with blots.

– Now if I was a suspicious man, I might incline to think that a pseudonym – or perhaps I should say a nom de plume, seeing as how you are a poet. You are a poet, I suppose?
– Yes, said Virgil tersely.
– Make a living at it?

Virgil sighed. The man at the washstand was now attiring himself in a brown civilian suit.

– I wouldn’t ask, normally, only my friend here does like to pen a bit of verse in quieter moments – you’d never think it to look at him, I know, said the wiry man with a smile, but some of it – in my humble opinion – is really quite good, and well worthy of a wider audience.

The big man examined his fingernails with a show of modesty. The brown suited man emerged from behind the counter, set a hat on his head, and said

– Well, that’s me off now, lads.

He went out, letting the door slam shut behind him. The wiry man put on a sudden air of briskness.

– But we can’t spend all day chatting about such things, I’m sure. He looked at Jake for the first time. Now then, young sir, what can I do for you?
– I’d like to go further in, said Jake.
– Would you now? Make a note of that, George.

The big man took the register again and wrote in it laboriously, at some length. While he did so, the other came round to their side of the counter, took a brush from a closet, and began to sweep the floor. When he reached Jake and Virgil, he looked at them as if surprised to find them still there.

– Well, if you come back tomorrow, I’m sure the sergeant will attend to you.
– The sergeant? said Jake with a sinking heart.

The wiry man swept round them.

– The gentleman who’s just gone out, he said over his shoulder. He’s the one you want to speak to. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re finished here for the day.

When they were outside, Virgil shook his head.

– I’m sorry. You see how it is. Perhaps they will be more amenable tomorrow.
– I doubt it, said Jake.

He watched as the wiry man, whistling cheerfully, closed the gate, securing it with a large padlock.

– Is there no other way in?

But Virgil was already some way down the road that led to the shanty town. Jake hesitated a moment, then went after him. It began to rain.