Saturday 17th December

Kind green eccentric (5)

It really is happening. It’s there in embossed gold – the conjunction of Philip Barry Sherborne (yes, Barry – oh dear!) and Marie-Claire Goodwin in University College Chapel at 11 a.m. and afterwards for luncheon and dancing (!) aboard the Folly Bargères. And there’s the date in elegant copperplate:

30th December 2016

I briefly admire the subtlety of the triple-underlining. Is this three-line whip for me personally or are all guests to be placed under similar typographical pressure?

30th December 2016 – the day on which the sheltering sky falls in? 30.12.2016. What about those digits? Knock a third off the 30 and add a third on to the 12 and what do you get? 2016. It’s not quite the number of the beast, is it?

It strikes me for the first time that although Phil’s initials are the same as Shelley’s, he rarely owns up to that unfortunate middle name.

But what’s in a name? I was christened Alan Alexander Hogg and for many years was puzzled by the fact that I wasn’t generally known by my first name (this caused no end of problems at school). My father insisted that they had put Alan, the name of my father’s brother, first for reasons of family propriety, while Alexander, the name of my great grandfather, was always the one they wanted to use. He pointed out that many great men are known by their second name. Certainly, Shelley was usually called Bysshe by kith and kin while Thomas Jefferson Hogg was universally known as Jefferson or even Jeff to his pals. He must have spent years batting off the assumption that he was named after the American President of the same name. “No, no, Thomas and Jefferson are old family names; it’s just a coincidence,” he would have said, with a sigh. But I suspect he would have been secretly proud of the association.

And I was too when my father finally spilled the beans. It appears that I was actually named after Alan Alexander Milne, whose books my parents both loved. I should be grateful; they might have called me ‘Christopher Robin’ – I can hardly imagine what that would have done for my chances of playground survival. Like most children, my imagination was saturated by the adventures of Pooh, Piglet, Tigger & co, both from the bedtime stories read and re-read to me and from the Disney film, played incessantly until the tape was chewed up by the VHS machine.

So AA Milne became one of the great heroes of my early life, along with Donald Campbell and Kevin Phillips. In later years, I came to admire The Red House Mystery (1922) every bit as much as Milne’s later work for his young son, but it was to The House at Pooh Corner that I see Ozzie has turned for the lengthy epigraph to his new book:

‘What do you like doing best in the world, Pooh?’ ‘Well,’ said Pooh, ‘what I like best—’ and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.

Those lines were taken from Pooh Corner’s coda – that final astonishing, farewell to childhood, a chapter whose elegiac power derives largely from its echoes of Morte Darthur. When I begged to hear that story one more time, my father would sigh and look for an alternative. The truth was that he knew that he would dissolve in tears (again) long before the end.

What of Uncle Alan, the disavowed donor of half my famous name? I remember him as a kind, eccentric country-lover. But I have barely seen him since the age of ten because he fell out with my father and the two brothers have not spoken since. Uncle Alan, eight years older than his only sibling, was married but had no children and treated me like the son he might have had. We swap e-mails and Christmas cards and I always feel guilty I do not visit him in his big old rambling house near Stockton, especially now that Aunty Janet has died and his own health is becoming increasingly frail. Since retirement from his dental practice, he has struggled in vain to keep the big old house warm and dry. But he’s nobody’s fool. The last I heard he had applied for outline permission to knock his manor-house down and replace it with thirty flats-worth of sheltered housing. No doubt some modern Rachman had put him up to it but good luck to the old fella, I say. I just hope he has earmarked the best of the flats for himself.

It was Uncle Alan who first introduced me to the delights of the crossword and other kinds of word puzzle. One day he gave me eleven matches and asked me to spell out my name. So I did.

“Do you know what’s unusual about this name?” he asked. I looked suitably blank. “It can be spelled out in capitals using straight lines only. Not many names work like that but can you think of another one that does?”

“Alan?” I said at last.

“That’s right. Your first name, and mine. But you are Al squared. Or Al2H, chemically speaking. Now see if you can change ALEX to ALAN by moving just three matches.”

After a short period of trial and error, I came up with the answer. It was but a short step from there to a more traditional challenge: change ALAN to ALEX a letter at a time, in just three moves:

A L A N
– – – –
– – – –
A L E X

Yup, you’ve got it: ALAN, ALAS, ALES, ALEX. It’s actually slightly harder to do it in four moves … how about ALAN, FLAN, FLAX, FLEX, ALEX?)

When I pointed out the ALAS ALES route to Phil one maudlin beery night, he countered that, with my initials, if I were ever to be the unwitting victim of a drink-driving accident, my worldly goods should be distributed equally to the Automobile Association and Alcoholics Anonymous while the offending driver could be charged with AA battery. My, how we laughed.

Should I make a will now? If Scylla or Charybdis pulls me under on 30th December, I don’t want it to be any harder for my parents than it needs to be. I should put my worldly affairs in order and make peace with my Maker, whoever He is. But I have so few worldly possessions and a will seems unnecessary. My clothes will be sniffed at by Oxfam. My paltry collection of books is not worth selling. Oxford is so rich in libraries and the internet so fecund that it has been hard to see the point in actually buying books. The Yaris is no doubt already worth less than the loan I have taken out to pay for it. I have no pension or savings. My laptop may well pre-decease me, so many viruses does it have. That’s about it: my life has negative equity. Perhaps I could hand in the keys and start a new one?

With the floodwaters still rising, the Botley Road has been closed to traffic for a week and I have been holed up on the Island for several days now. Why do all wellies spring a leak inside three months of purchase? The trek to the Job Centre means swishing through the silent streets and returning to Osney with a nasty case of trench-foot. Central parts of the island remain reasonably dry – why could my father not have shown a little more foresight and chosen a property in the middle of Bridge St? – but on the westernmost fringes, we are under several inches of water.

Our ground-floor carpets were all safely lifted in time and we even managed to get the sofa up the stairs without wrecking Dad’s back. Amazingly, the gas and electricity still work, so we are able to cook and heat the house. But the smell downstairs is worsening – like boiled cabbage that has been left to stew for several days. A surprising number of neighbours have retreated to second homes or to unsuspecting relatives, leaving Frog Island to the elderly, the infirm and a few poor saps who actually work for a living.

So here I am surfing the net, in preference to surfing the Botley Rd, when I am surprised by a knock on the front door. I descend the stairs, don my wellies and lever the door ajar. On the doorstep, in an outlandish pair of galoshes, is Ozzie.

“Am I in time for a little something?” he enquires.

“We are fresh out of honey and condensed milk,” I confess. “But I might be able to do you a coffee. Come upstairs, old son!”

There is just space amidst the clutter of my bedroom for the two of us to hunker down. Ozzie admires the Turner briefly.

“I’ve come to pick your brains, Leg End …”

“Pick away!”

“Your boss,” Ozzie starts, hesitantly. “Your old boss, that is …”

“Lebedev? That bastard. Yes?”

“Apart from his bastardy, what do you make of him?”

I have had a little time since my defenestration to consider exactly this question.

“Ruthless. Self-serving. Humourless. Hypocritical. If you’ve come round to ask me to join his Fan Club …”

“Quite the opposite. You see, Alex, I think he’s trying to get me thrown out of college as well.”

“How could he possibly do that? You aren’t part of his tawdry little fiefdom, are you?”

“No, but he is on the College Council. And my Associated Fellowship comes up for renewal in the next couple of months.”

“Surely that is a formality?”

“Apparently not. The days of no-questions-asked tenure are long gone.”

“But everybody loves you, Ozzie. And that new book of yours on genre has been selling awfully well, I believe.”

“It’s the book that’s the problem.”

“I don’t follow …”

“It got reviewed in some obscure periodical.”

“And they awarded it just the one star?”

“Worse than that. The author claimed that I had nicked all the ideas out of his doctorate.”

“And had you?”

“Of course not. I’d never even read the stupid thing. It was written back in 1982, for God’s sake, and never even properly published.”

Properly published?”

“You can find it online in one of the dustiest, most unvisited corners of the internet. A copy of it was also lodged in the Bodleian, so I’m told, or some annexe of the Bod in Kuala Lumpur. I’d be amazed if anyone has ever called it up. I’d certainly never seen it.”

“Surely literary criticism has moved on a little bit since 1982?”

“Of course it has. The whole thing’s a joke. There are hundreds of thousands of unread doctorates out there, so it’s not surprising that one of them, if you go back far enough, has a few superficial similarities to my own book. If enough monkeys rattle away on typewriters, sooner or later one of them produces the works of Shakespeare.”

“Then what have you got to worry about?”

“Well … there do seem to be some similarities of phrasing.”

“You’re being accused of plagiarism?”

Ozzie shrugs his shoulders. He seems close to tears. This is not the first time he has been involved in academic controversy. Prior to his history of literary genre, he created a bit of a stir with an article in an obscure periodical with the title: ‘Who was Richard Price? The strange discovery of the Gawain-poet in 1824’. The suggestion (hedged in numerous caveats) that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight might, just might have been a forgery did not go down well with medieval faculties around the world. I remember asking him once (after a couple of ales, admittedly) who he thought really did write Gawain and Pearl and he put forward the theory that the manuscript that the unknown Mr Price claimed to have unearthed in 1824 was part of the mountain of papers Shelley left behind when he drowned. Shelley? The Gawain-poet? Well, if a teenager like Thomas Chatterton (AKA Thomas Rowley) could get away with forging medieval poetry, how could PBS resist the challenge? So Ozzie does have a bit of form when it comes to literary controversy.

“Do you think it’s all just coincidence?” I ask.

“I don’t know what to think, Alex.”

“My own life seems full of inexplicable coincidences. Why should yours be any different? How did the College Council get wind of all this?”

“Lebedev told them. Said it might come out in the national press.”

“Surely not?”

“Someone might leak the story …”

“The press have got much bigger fish to fry. You don’t think Lebedev would …”

“Apparently, he reminded everyone that the college must be whiter than white if we are to maximise our alumni donations and benefactions. After the Rhodes Computer Room fiasco, the slightest hint of scandal would set us back years.”

“What hogwash!”

“So a little bird tells me that the Council are ‘considering’ advertising my position.”

“Oh, Ozzie, I’m sorry!”

“Except ‘position’ is too strong a word for what I’ve got. I’m just temporary staff, paid on an hourly rate for the teaching that no one else wants to do. Some days I have ten hours of tutorials, others none at all.”

“I know. It’s worse than the zero hours contract I was on at Iceland.”

“The public still thinks we academics have a job for life. But tenure is a thing of the past. Do you know that 64% of Oxford lecturers and tutors are on fixed-term or other ‘unusual’ contracts?”

“As much as that?”

“In Cambridge it’s just 13%.  But round here we have all the job security of the average manager of Sunderland. If we so much as quibble, our hours can be cut to nothing and there’s some other impoverished postgrad desperate to take up the slack.”

I decide not to point out that our good friend, Phil, is one of the 36% on a permanent contract or that I am one of the also-rans who would gladly step into Ozzie’s shoes.  My old pal looks at me plaintively:

“So I’ve come round for some tips on how to apply for Jobseekers’ Allowance.”

“I’m going to help you fight this, Ozzie,” I say unconvincingly.

“You’ve read my book?”

“Look, here it is on the table!” I fish it out from under a pile of other stuff. “But I’ve been a bit preoccupied with other stuff lately …”

“So you haven’t actually read it?”

“I was saving it up as a Christmas present to myself. Honest. Cracking title: A Brief History of Literary Genre!”

“Not too Hawking-ish?”

Another Univ old boy! He’s not suing you as well, is he?”

“Who knows? It could be another in the long line of ground-breaking law-suits affecting Univ men. But there are a lot of books these days with “brief history” in the title – it always sells well, apparently. People think they’re going to learn an awful lot very quickly.”

“So what’s in your brief history?”

I try to look as enthusiastic as possible. Indeed, I am curious. Ozzie’s career to date has been almost exactly what I feel mine ought to have been. But while I boxed myself into a corner with research into the influence of St Teresa of Avila on nineteenth-century literature, Ozzie managed to hit on something which has just got bigger and bigger. And, like all academics, he loves to talk about his work to someone who has at least a glimmer of understanding of what he is on about. So off he goes …

“My book addresses the question of why genres come and go. Why do they strike a chord for readers and writers at a certain date and then fall completely out of favour? Why were eclogues, for example, hugely popular two thousand years ago and then, like other forms of pastoral literature, dead as a dodo? Who would write or read an eclogue now? Or there’s the detective novel, hugely popular throughout the twentieth century and yet almost non-existent before then – why?”

“OK, you’ve got me …”

“The way we tell stories has changed through time. Writers have gradually told their readers less and less about what is going on. The fundamental question which defines narrative genre is this: do we readers know more or less about what is happening than the central characters? In the earliest narrative genres like tragedy and epic, the readers and listeners were always one step ahead of the main characters, able to see their triumphs and disasters long before the protagonists themselves. This is partly because the same stories were told over and again and partly because writers like Virgil would summarise their story in advance. The audience is, metaphorically, up there in the gods, two or three steps ahead of Odysseus or Aeneas. We’ve heard it all before but we enjoy the re-telling of these old, old stories. We look forward to the expected peripeteia and we anticipate the hero’s eventual moment of discovery or self-awareness, his anagnorisis, with relish.”

“Ah, yes, I remember my Aristotle …”

“The old genius had it spot on even though he took, as his primary example, Oedipus Rex, a play which was decidedly ahead of its time in this respect. In classical tragedy, and indeed comedy, the audience is one step ahead of the characters at every point – we know all the plots that are being perpetrated and the traps that lie ahead, so we enjoy a sense of dramatic irony and even catharsis when these knotty problems are eventually resolved.

“In simple terms, we, the audience, are one step ahead of the protagonist in tragedy, parallel with the protagonist in adventure and certain kinds of romance, and at least one step behind the central characters when we read a whodunit or other kinds of mystery. This reader-control is the main thing that defines each of these genres.”

“Surely genres have very different sorts of plot?”

“Not in my book. Take Shakespeare, for instance. What is the difference between the comedies that Shakespeare wrote in the early part of his career and the romances he wrote at the end? Why do we laugh at the comedies but not at the romances? The sort of deceptions and ‘practices’ that drive the story forward are similar in both and the happy outcomes are more or less identical. So why do they feel so different? Look at Much Ado and The Winter’s Tale, for instance. Both plays feature a man who must be taken down a peg or two before he is allowed to enjoy a happy ending. Both Claudio, in Much Ado, and Leontes are fooled into thinking that their partners, Hero and Hermione, have died as a result of their faithlessness and treachery. In fact, each woman is feigning death to teach her man a lesson and the happy ending is triggered by her staged resurrection.

“The big difference between the two plays is that in Much Ado we know all about the con trick perpetrated on Claudio while in The Winter’s Tale, we don’t – our perspective is the same as Leontes’ so the eventual metamorphosis of Hermione’s statue results in as much of a shock to the audience as it does to Leontes. Same plot, very different experience. And that’s the main difference between comedy and romance.

“And so to the birth of the novel, so called because it was something the writer had had the nerve to make up himself rather than re-cycle. Readers discovered that they actually preferred stories where they didn’t know the ending in advance, where there was some element of suspense about what was going to happen. Most of the early novels were adventures, with readers who shared the perspective of the main character, knowing neither more or less than he or she did. Female readers preferred novels which concluded with the heroine marrying her prince but these soon became a little too predictable. It took the genius of Jane Austen to transform that genre.”

“But Emma gets her man, doesn’t she?”

“Yes, but it’s a world away from Fanny Burney and the rest of the eighteenth century lady novelists. Jane Austen puts us inside the mind of her protagonist and yet at the same time, she doesn’t. We are never told that Emma loves Knightley or that Elizabeth loves Darcy – no such recorded thought crosses their mind prior to the ending. We learn more of the spark of attraction between the heroine and the pseudo-heroes, Frank Churchill, Mr Wickham and their ilk, than we do of any romantic feelings towards the man they will eventually marry. Jane Austen does everything in her power to keep the ending a surprise.”

“But the endings are pretty ‘obvious’, aren’t they?”

“Only to the jaded modern reader who has learnt all the tricks of the trade. The challenge of the genre, for a storyteller like Austen, was to make the ending a pleasant and satisfying surprise. The techniques she developed in order to withhold her central narrative secret and to keep the reader in the dark represent a huge turning-point in the history of story-telling. The same techniques lie behind the invention of a new genre, the mystery – Bleak House, Edwin Drood, Sherlock Holmes, etc – where nothing is what it seems, where the reader knows a great deal less than the detective or the murderer about what is going on, and where suspense is everything, prior to the transformational ending. The challenge for today’s novelist is to create an ending which revolutionises our understanding of every element that precedes it; character, plot, the lot.

“So a big part of my book is about the ways storytellers tell lies and lead us up garden paths. Austen more or less invented free indirect speech, for instance, where the narrative flits in and out of a character’s thoughts and speech-idioms so that we are deceived into mistaking a character’s (probably misleading) impressions for narrative “facts”. The author-figure is not allowed to tell a lie but novelists have learnt to de-authorise themselves, to melt into the background of their own stories. As readers now, we demand to be kept in the dark, to be constantly surprised.”

“How does your old friend, Sir Gawain, figure in this history of storytelling?”

“I was advised to leave him out of this book. But one of the reasons I suggested it might be a nineteenth century pastiche is because it simply would not have been possible to tell the story in that way back in 1390 or whenever it was supposedly written. Keeping the audience in the dark about what the Green Knight and Sir Bertilak are up to – in order to create the surprise ending – would have been feasible in the nineteenth century but not in the fourteenth. If Gawain is genuine, it’s as much of an anachronism as Oedipus Rex was for Aristotle’s era.”

“So where does genre go from here?”

“Good question. Perhaps the history of storytelling is a bit like the history of classical music from plainsong to Schoenberg’s experiments in atonality and chromatic scales. In the end, music-lovers’ ears couldn’t keep up with that much uncertainty, that much surprise. So we gave up and started listening to pop music instead, with its variations on much more familiar themes and patterns.

“Yes, does anyone actually listen to Schoenberg these days? And how many of us have actually read Finnegans Wake?”

“I certainly haven’t. Anyway, that, in a nutshell, is my latest book. But what I thought was a revolutionary reappraisal of the entire history of storytelling turns out to be nothing of the sort. Some old doctoral student, now working as a chartered accountant in Grimsby, I believe, came up with much the same set of theories thirty or forty years ago, only nobody took a blind bit of notice at the time.”

“What’s the name of this chap?”

“I’m not entirely sure. He’s still writing reviews under the name of Justin Roseland.”

“What, like the golfer, plus ‘land’?”

“More likely the Cornish village of the same name. I don’t think that’s his real name. Perhaps I’ll find out in court.”

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