“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”

George Eliot

Middlemarch, George Eliot’s famous “Study of Provincial Life”, is a finely detailed, richly textured novel about, well, provincial life in the 1830s. Written in the 1860s, its events are surprisingly accurately dated; a large range of characters is depicted with sympathy and psychological faithfulness; and it is full of quotable quotes like the one above.

It is also the most sensationally dull novel I have ever had the misfortune to read. I only finished it because I have an essay to write on it tomorrow. It is hopelessly long, so you never feel like you’re getting anywhere near the end, and every single little thing that happens, including a lot of stuff that has already happened, is traced out and analysed obsessively. I had real difficulty in continuing reading, because every time I started I got a headache. That is how much of a trial it is to read.

As for the characters – well, there were a couple of moments when I engaged with them, but this happened for the equivalent of 4 pages in a 500-page novel. For the most part, I just could not bring myself to care about Dorothea’s marriage or Lydgate’s practice or the Vincys’ worries. Of the ten people I know who’ve read it (and these are all English students) only one has a good word to say about it. You can draw your own conclusions from that.


The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Jane Austen

Continuing the “updated classics” theme, the subject of today’s (quite short) post is The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, “an online adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice“, according to the site. It’s in the form of a videoblog by the eponymous Lizzie Bennet. It’s very funny, especially if you’ve already read the book, and you know how terrible I am at writing about comedy, so I’m just going to leave you the link and go back to watching it. Highly recommended. See you tomorrow.

Nick Nickleby: Ep. 5

“Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you, from falling hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

John McCrae

(For Armistice Day, because we will remember them.)

It’s all kicking off in Dickens-land. Plotlines converge, nefarious crimes are unravelled, revelations are revealed, just when the shadows seemed deepest.

The events of episode 4 were massively traumatic (I cried real tears at the end) and now, in true Dickensian fashion, things are taking a turn for the better. All the main characters make their way to London, one way or another, and a combination of luck, slightly dodgy dealing and determination brings them all together to wreak vengeance on evil generally, and Uncle Ralph more specifically. (This is not a spoiler. Well, what else did you expect from a Dickens story?)

There’s still the odd flash of black humour – “Why don’t you get the place cleaned up?” says the dastardly Ralph. “Because I’m not a cleaner,” is the witty rejoinder – but mainly, now, the plot is driven by the dramatic concatenation of events you always find at the end of a Dickens novel. There are, however, a few moments that don’t really make sense when you think about them. For instance, the despairing Mr Noggs is lying in the grave he originally dug for Nick (long story, go watch episode 4 if you haven’t already); we’re obviously meant to think he’s dead. (Well, we knew he wasn’t anyway, since dead people tend not to do voiceovers.) Then he answers his phone. Right. Let me get this straight. He’s suicidal enough to lie in an open grave in the mud, but he’s still going to answer his phone? Little bit incongruous, there.

Much of the latter part of the episode turns on Mrs Smike’s legacy, which consists of an envelope marked NICK FIND HIM. “I think she meant you to have it,” says Madhi to Nick. No, really? I would never have guessed.

I don’t think this episode was the strongest of the five; it falls into the trap of over-sentimentalisation and melodrama. These are, admittedly, hard to avoid with Dickens, who was a bit of a sentimentalist, so I think we can forgive this. And there are some lovely moments, like the voiceover in the middle about an atom of hope in the midst of an uncaring world. (I’m pretty sure that part is almost verbatim Dickens. Sounds like it, anyway.)

Overall, this was a wonderful adaptation of Dickens. If you can get iPlayer, watch it. If you can’t…er…there’s not much I can suggest. Sorry.

Merlin: The Dark Tower

“All is forgotten in the stone halls of the dead. These are the rooms of ruin where the spiders spin and the great circuits fall quiet, one by one…”

Stephen King

Oh, this is delightful! An actual episode of Merlin actually called The Dark Tower! The literary echoes are deafening!

Sorry. Some context for those who are utterly confused. The Dark Tower is a series of novels by Stephen King with which I am completely obsessed at the moment. Its protagonist, Roland, is a knight (of sorts) descended from, yes, King Arthur (or a version of him, at any rate). Now do you see why I’m so excited?

Actually, the Dark Tower of this episode owes more to Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” than to Stephen King’s heptology (is that the right word?). Guinevere is captured by Morgana and taken to the Tower, a place of madness and fear:

The Tower. Everything in its shadow was dead. And the sound -it was like children screaming. And the rain was like blood.

Of course, Arthur leads a band of gallant knights to rescue her; to achieve this they must, in true Arthurian tradition, pass through a number of challenges, including an impenetrable forest, a booby-trapped chamber and a desert full of skeletons (not necessarily in that order).

Most of the episode was quite possibly the best Merlin I’ve seen. Not just because of the Dark Tower, I promise. The tricksy nature of the Tower and the lands surrounding it, the shots of Gwen descending ever deeper into madness and the appearance of the riddling Queen Mab made for a truly gripping yarn. But the ending was rushed, and didn’t provoke the pathos it was probably meant to, and the Tower was defeated too easily for “a place where every young knight is taught to dread.”

Fundamentally, this was very good episode that was ruined by some bad timing. A little less of “brave ka-tet riding through forest” and a little more of “struggle within the self” in the Tower would have made it perfect.

Doctor Who: Victory of the Daleks

“If Hitler invaded hell, I would give a favourable reference to the Devil.”

Doctor Who

Yes, I have indeed found some Doctor Who! And why not, given that there is to be no new Who for at least another couple of months, and it will almost inevitably be awful?

There are many things to be said for Victory of the Daleks in comparison to the newest series. Victory of the Daleks was, if I’m not totally mistaken, the third episode in Matt Smith’s first series. So this is pre-Rory, which is a pity, but, on the other hand, it was the series with the “crack in time” story arc; in fact, one of the last story arcs, since Steven Moffatt in his infinite wisdom has chosen to scrap the story arc in favour of the blockbuster in order to crack America.

OK, back to Victory of the Daleks. Brief plot synopsis: Winston Churchill gives the Doctor a call, he turns up a month later (broken TARDIS, remember?) to find that Winston is using Daleks (with Union flags painted on them and everything) as soldiers. Understandably, he’s a bit cross. In fact, he tells Winston to “Destroy them. Exterminate them.” The Doctor appears to have a bit of a blind spot where the Daleks are concerned. They are, I think, the only race towards which the Doctor has never showed mercy. He just gets incredibly angry and shouts at people. There’s a character flaw for you, which is nice because Matt Smith is in most episodes more of a children’s superhero rather than someone who has an actual character.

For Whovians out there, this episode is the famous Jammy Dodger episode, where the Doctor informs the Daleks that he will blow up their ship with a “TARDIS self-destruct device” which in fact turns out to be, yes, a Jammy Dodger. That is a classic Doctor Who moment, even if it is preceded by the unveiling of some new Daleks in A Range of Colours to Suit Everybody’s Taste! We have Dalek White, Dalek Blue, Dalek Lime….well, you get the idea.

And it all ends in an impossibly Star Wars-esque aerial battle, complete with laser guns. But I suppose we can excuse that on the grounds of limited budget.

All in all, a passable episode given what has succeeded it. Mark Gatiss is actually a half-decent writer, although there is a scene in which a bomb is defeated by love. Nice idea, but that’s not exactly how physics works…

Nick Nickleby – Ep. 2 & 3

“People marry first, fall in love later.”

Nick Nickleby

You may remember that I reviewed the first episode of this a couple of days ago; if you have a very good memory, you may even remember that I said there were details that didn’t quite fit. That was, in part, because I was puzzled by it. It was just utterly unlike any other Dickens adaptation I’d ever seen.


And now I’ve worked it out, and the conclusion I have come to is this: Nick Nickleby is odd because it does what no other Dickens adaptation (at least, any that I’ve seen) has done. It’s captured the exact spirit of Dickens’ novels. (I can only speak in broad terms because I’ve never read Nicholas Nickleby, although I have read some Dickens.) There’s the surreal satire in the person of Mr Squeers (because nobody is that evil); the likeable hero; the moments of intense pathos (Mrs Smike almost made me cry. True story.); and the sense that all will, eventually, turn to good. In my opinion, the real star of the show is not Nick but Mr Noggs, the beleaguered, morally troubled clerk to the dastardly Ralph Nickleby, played by Jonathan Harden. He narrates the story, and it’s his struggle between duty to his employer (who appears to have some dirt on him in any case) and his concern for Nick that really drive the plot.


Oh, and the fact that Mrs Smike appears to have consumption. I didn’t even know that was around any more.

I think it’s a tribute to the quality of this adaptation that it’s hard to tell where Dickens ends and modernity begins. “There is some spell about that boy” is probably Dickensian. But the “green card” side plot probably isn’t. And then there’s this quote:

It’s mad, isn’t it? Us meeting again in a city this big.

That sums up Dickens perfectly: that fragile web of coincidences and connections that holds us all together. And, in fact, I think I’m going to watch the next episode now. Why not? It’s on iPlayer. And I just can’t wait.

Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective

“Stories don’t always end where their authors intended. But there is joy in following them, wherever they may lead.”

Miss Potter

Another documentary tonight, from the BBC’s “Imagine” series. It follows bestselling crime novelist Ian Rankin over the six months it took for him to write his new novel, Standing in Another Man’s Grave. (Don’t expect a review any time soon.)

I’ve never actually read any of Rankin’s novels, but this documentary looked interesting for the potential insights into a writer’s working practice. I mean, who wouldn’t be interested by that? (Don’t answer that.)

And it was interesting. One of the questions that all writers get asked – and all writers complain about – is “Where do you get your ideas from?” And the consensus seems to be that there is no real answer. It just happens. Rankin keeps a folder of newspaper clippings and random stuff jotted down, saying “There is a story here. I’m just waiting for it to reveal itself to me.” That sounds silly, doesn’t it. Sounds hippy-ish and New Age and, well, just like claptrap. Thing is, (and here I’m talking from very limited experience) it’s actually true. With most ideas, you’ve no idea where they come from; they just…reveal themselves.

Anyway, idea in place, Rankin moves on to the writing. And here’s another lesson learned: writers are masters in the art of procrastination. On the 2nd January, Rankin says something like “I’m hoping to start writing in the next few days.” Six days later, he’s not started. That is what I call procrastination.

Then there’s a lot of angsty stuff about how Rankin “doesn’t know where the book’s going”. At first, it sounds fair enough. I never know where a story’s going (from limited experience again) until, well, it gets there. But then you think: well, he’s a crime novelist. The murders in a good murder mystery are so intricately plotted that in the end, like a good riddle, you see that there could never have been any other solution. So, I suggest, it’s a bit worrying that even the author has no idea of the answer…

Well, anyway, Rankin does eventually manage to work out what’s going on and, after about 45 minutes, is finished. But then, of course, come the dreaded critics. Some context: Rankin announces at the Hay-on-Wye book festival that his new book brings back Rebus, his most famous creation who was retired a few books ago. After this announcement, a critic (who has never even read the new book, it not being published yet) accuses Rankin in a newspaper article of “milking it”. Which is a perfectly reasonable speculation – everyone’s thought it, often in response to the Harry Potter franchise (I mean, come on, The Tales of Beedle the Bard was clearly just a money-spinner. Or not, as the case may be.) or similar stupidly best-selling series. But here, the hurt in Rankin’s eyes as he reads it is clear: “I’ve no idea why she thinks – “. And because we’ve seen it happen, seen the author’s barely-conscious decision to bring Rebus back, we sympathise with him in a way that, possibly, we wouldn’t otherwise.

And that is the lesson for today. There are always two sides to every story.

(Also, Ian Rankin and the Case of the Disappearing Detective is very interesting for readers and writers both.)