Hazel McHaffie

A Christmas Carol

The Man who Invented Christmas

175 years ago yesterday Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Since then it’s been reinvented time after time until it’s become one of the most familiar and well-loved tales ever. In Dickens own day, the book changed the way people viewed the world, generating as it did, at once a feeling of love and of shame. Overnight charitable giving soared. And in the twenty-first century it remains a salutary reminder of the joy to be found in friendship, kindness and generosity.

The film, The Man who Invented Christmas, is based on the true story of how Dickens (played by Dan Stevens) wrote his masterpiece – you can click on the picture above to watch the official trailer. It beautifully captures the torture of writing, the agonising, the obsession, the exhilaration. Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchitt, Tiny Tim … they all come alive as they take shape in Charles’s imagination and indeed become more important to him than his own flesh and blood, as his long suffering wife laments. It felt totally believable; I too know that affinity with the people of my imagination, the difficulty of living in the real world when you’re totally immersed in the fictional one.

But what comes across powerfully in this dramatic representation is the sobering reality of Dickens’ actual life, which I knew already from books like Charles Dickens: The Gas-light Boy, reviewed in this blog post last year. He’s famous at a young age, yes, but constantly struggling to cope with the debts forced on him by his reckless and feckless father, a large and growing brood of children, and fickle publishers. Under enormous pressure to churn out book after book merely to stay afloat … thousands upon thousands of words written in dim light with a scratchy pen dipped in ink! Astonishing and humbling to view his genius against this context.

Here he is, weeks from Christmas, and struggling to find a viable idea for his work. The magical story-telling powers of a little orphan Irish girl trigger a thought … the name Scrooge brings Ebenezer into sharp relief … the vision of a happy ghost gives him one of the three spirits … the tears and entreaty of the Irish girl at the death of Tiny Tim spur him towards the perfect ending. The novella is completed with minutes to spare. And becomes his most famous and best-loved work.

I recommend this film to you: perfect viewing for the season. And I echo Tiny Tim’s Christmas wish to you all: ‘God bless us, everyone!

 

 

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Learning from a master

Shutterstock image

In my occasional musings about authors who break stylistic rules and get away with it, I haven’t as yet mentioned our old friend Charles Dickens. We all know he’s lauded and revered for all sorts of reasons, not least his perspicacious commentary of social issues, but only recently did I see an article about his narrative audacity. It was in The Author, and by Professor John Mullan of University College London, who’s currently writing a book about the great man’s novels. I found it so fascinating I thought I’d share some of his comments with you.

Professor Mullan maintains that it was Dickens’ experimental approach to prose that set him apart from all previous novelists. The ‘fizz of his sentences’ redefined what constituted eloquent prose. He latched on to habits of spoken English normally scorned by writers – clichés, redundancies, common parlance, idiosyncrasies, exaggeration, repetition, lists – and used them to brilliant effect.

Specific examples best illustrate the point, I think.

First then, clichés. OK, all self-respecting writers are taught to wage war against clichés. And yet Dickens brought out ‘the energy lying dormant within‘ them. Example? The famous opening of A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Two common phrases – ‘to begin with’ and ‘dead as a door nail’ are used very cleverly here. ‘To begin with’ tells us that this is the first fact to state, but it also alerts us to the fact that Marley will be coming back to life as the story progresses. Neat, huh?

‘As dead as a door nail’ …? Dickens explains:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Can’t you just hear some famous thespian declaiming these lines as an aside and the audience appreciatively roaring with laughter? Dickens not only brings this popular adage to life but he plays to the doubts we may harbour ourselves about the finality of a death: certainly the ‘common way of asserting that a life is extinguished will not be enough to stop this dead man returning.‘ (my emphasis)

Or another example of a cliché used for amusement as well as depiction: Mr Pecksniff the pious hypocrite in Martin Chuzzlewitt is telling the old man from whom he hopes to win a legacy, that he despises money.

It would be no description of Mr Pecksniff’s gentleness of manner to adopt the common parlance, and say that he looked at this moment as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He rather looked as if any quantity of butter might have been made out of him, by churning the milk of human kindness, as it spouted upwards from his heart.

Figurative absurdity that conveys so much about the man.

Another literary no-no: exaggeration. Generally speaking, less is more. In Dickens’ hands, however, it arouses our sense of the ridiculous. Listen to this passage conveying Mr Dombey’s exultation on the birth of a son, ‘not quite noticing that his wife is near death‘, and his sense of self importance, in Dombey and Son.

The earth was made for Dombey and Son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate a system of which they were the centre … A.D. had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombeii – and Son.

You can feel the thud on the floorboards as the pompous fellow struts up and down, chest puffed out, self-satisfaction written all over his face, can’t you?

Repetition is another no-no for writers normally, but Dickens uses it to great purpose – to convey obsession – in Our Mutual Friend.

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick and span new. All their furniture was new, all their friends were new, all their servants were new, their plate was new, their horses were new, their pictures were new, they themselves were new, they were as newly married as was lawfully compatible with their having a bran-new baby …

Don’t you wish you’d thought of this?

Then there are lists. Mullan shares two superb examples from Dickens’ pen. The first is Pip’s disgust as he takes in the horror of having a convict’s money paying for his gentlemanly expectations in Great Expectations.

In all his [Convict Magwich] ways of sitting and standing, and eating and drinking, – of brooding about in a high-shouldered reluctant style, – of taking out his great hornhandled jackknife and wiping it on his legs and cutting his food, – of lifting light glasses and cups to his lips, as if they were clumsy pannikins, – of chopping a wedge off his bread, and soaking up with it the last fragments of gravy round and round his plate, as if to make the most of an allowance, and then drying his finger-ends on it, and then swallowing it, – in these ways and a thousand other small nameless instances arising every minute in the day, there was Prisoner, Felon, Bondsman, plain as plain could be.

You can feel Pip’s eyes absorbing these habits with dawning horror, can’t you? All those small foibles amounting to a massive, eye-opening, most unwelcome realisation.

The second is also from Great Expectations (resonates with me particularly since I studied this book for O-level English lit back in the day). Pip is narrating his journey down the Thames estuary determined to intercept the packet boat to France so that his benefactor can escape.

For now the last of the fleet of ships was round the last low point we had headed; and the last green barge, straw-laden, with a brown sail, had followed; and some ballast-lighters, shaped like a child’s first rude imitation of a boat, lay low in the mud; and the little squat shoal-lighthouse on open piles stood crippled in the mud on stilts and crutches; and slimy stakes stuck out of the mud, and slimy stones stuck out of the mud, and red landmarks and tidemarks stuck out of the mud, and an old landing stage and an old roofless building slipped into the mud, and all about us was stagnation and mud.

Not one of us lesser spotted authors, I suspect, would dare a sentence this long, this repetitious, and yet, it works beautifully in the hands of Charles Dickens, doesn’t it?

I’m indebted to Professor Mullan for this illuminating new look into Dickens’ cleverness. Maybe, after all, the rule book for writers needs revision …? No, rather, I suspect that only the true expert knows when and how to bend those rules to such spectacular effect. And how many of us will ever aspire to Dickens’ giddy heights?

 

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A time for giving

Christmas. Time to make contact. Time to appreciate friends. Time to give gifts. Time for a little gentle reflection …

You’ve probably seen the posters:

Comparing what the season means to us here in the fifth richest country, (foreign visitors please substitute your own ranking), with what it will bring for those people caught up in world conflicts and humanitarian crises, it’s all too easy to sink beneath a burden of injustice, maybe even guilt, isn’t it? We see the horrors everyday on our screens, in our papers; our contributions feel all too meagre. Today, however, I don’t want to dwell on the depressing aspects of our global inequalities, rather I want to send out a positive message.

Let’s go back to the beginning of my thinking … I read somewhere (can’t now remember where) that David Cameron is charging £120,000 per hour to give talks about Brexit. That’s £2,000 per minute. Hello? He was only getting £143,462 per annum when he was running the country! – OK, I know, I know, that was his basic salary; he had sundry other substantial incomes alongside that. And don’t get me started on the obscene salaries sportspeople earn rake in, or models, or … Yes, yes, you get the picture.

Instead, let’s turn to face in another direction, and consider the unsung heroes in our society; contrast their incomes with £2,000 per minute.
The average wage for a carer patiently looking after our elderly and demented relatives, is £7.25 an hour.
A school teacher educating our precious children gets a starting salary of £19,600.
A qualified nurse with our lives in her hands can expect to take home £21,692 a year at the start of her career.
A fully competent trained fireman putting his own life on the line will get £29,345.
I could go on.

They aren’t on the front cover of glossy magazines, they aren’t being pursued by the paparazzi for celebrity shots, they aren’t winning Nobel prizes, they aren’t wowing us with their luxury homes/yachts/cars/handbags/jewels, they aren’t attracting mega bucks. No, but they are helping to create/preserve the caring society I want for my children and grandchildren. They are making the world a better place. Indeed many of them will be looking after our relatives and friends instead of being at home with their own loved ones this Christmas. I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by such people, ordinary folk doing extraordinary things, and I see at first hand the extra miles they go, the difference they make, the quiet satisfaction they get from a job well done. I want to take this opportunity to comprehensively salute them all and wish them joy and contentment, not just at this festive time, but every day.

As Tiny Tim would say, ‘God bless them, every one!’

Let’s all resolve in the coming year to truly value excellence, dedication, selflessness and service.

 

 

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First lines

What is it that makes us pick up a book and then buy/borrow it? The author’s name? Title? Cover? Back cover blurb? A combination, maybe?

What makes us open the book and having started, keep reading? First line? First page? First chapter?

Books 1Well, last week I told you about Ian Rankin releasing the first line of his new novel. I doubt very much if that will ever become an oft-quoted introduction, but it led me to thinking about famous first lines and what it is that makes them memorable. Ones that spring instantly to mind are …

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  (L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (George Orwell, 1984)

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)

Marley was dead, to begin with. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

But I rather think that some of these have acquired legendary status, not just for their literary merit, but because they evoke fond memories of classic favourites.

There are other first lines, less well known, that instantly grabbed my attention and made me want to read on to see what the book was all about. If this author could write a few words this well, I’d be happy to commit a day or two/a week or two to finding out what he/she has to tell me.Books 2

It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Iain M Banks, The Crow Road)
Not an everyday occurrence, grandmothers exploding, so intriguing. How? Why? Where? When? What happened next?

The scent of slaughter, some believe, can linger in a place for years. (Nicholas Evans, The Loop)
Who’s been slaughtered? Who’s smelling their deaths today? Is it true?

I am a lawyer, and I am in prison. It’s a long story. (John Grisham, The Racketeer)
A story I want to hear. Why? What’s he done? How will he be treated? Is he guilty?

In their sacks they ride as in their mother’s womb: knee to chest, head pressed down, as if to die is merely to return to the flesh from which we were born, and this is a second conception. (James Bradley, The Resurrectionist)
Makes your skin crawl, doesn’t it? Who are these people condemned to such a death?

Books 3When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter. (Harlan Coben, No Second Chance)
Was there a second one? Who was shooting him? Why was it his daughter who sprang to mind?

The clothes of the dead won’t wear long. (Barbara Vine, The Brimstone Wedding)
There is so much wrapped up in this thought that transcends this one story, but I want to know what happened to make it an apposite statement.

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. (Sarah Waters, Fingersmith)
So, why has it changed? What happened when she was Susan Trinder? What has transpired since?

I’m now thinking hard about my own first line. To date I’ve tended to concentrate more on getting the first page gripping. That introductory bit is so important; if you haven’t hooked your reader from the outset, he/she’s probably not going to bother to read on. I’ve actually often written the beginning last, spent ages refining it, for that very reason. I’ve sometimes even added a prologue to bring all the key intriguing elements to the fore and make the reader want to know how everything was resolved.

But first line? That’s a different level of demand. Fascinating to ponder.

 

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Storytelling

I know, it's been far too long. Oscar will have grown beyond all recognition.    ‘We make stories to make sense of our lives,‘ says psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz. ‘But it’s not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen.‘ I’m here for my last event of the Book Festival for 2013 so it’s fitting that it’s about storytelling – my job. As before in the Peppers Theatre, it’s baking hot – the poor chairman is visibly melting. And there’s a booming voice competing from next door where a children’s storyteller sounds to be adopting amazing voices.

In his acclaimed book, The Examined Life, Grosz contends that storytelling is key to sanity, and essential in helping us change. But we can be reluctant to accept the need to change – as the well known saying goes: ‘I want to change but not if it involves changing.‘ This is partly because there can’t be change without loss. But loss is part of living, so Grosz has written a collection of short stories about different patients, tracking the trajectory of life from birth to death, with all the attendant losses and changes that involves.

He selects one man with HIV who consulted him for 22 years to illustrate his work and the relationships he builds up. His aim is to reveal the patience needed to help any patient find out who they are. To capture what there is between analyst and patient; to feel one is there in the room with them. To appreciate the privilege it is to face things with someone else. To see ourselves more clearly through the stories of others.

At the heart of his clinical practice is the idea that ‘All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story.‘ It may take a long time for someone to eventually tell their story, but Grosz provides a place of acceptance whatever the person is grappling with. The analyst, he says, has to haunt the patient with ghosts of his past and present and future; haunting makes the patient alive to the realities that he might not want to see, just as it did for Scrooge in Dickens‘ famous A Christmas Carol: this is what is going to happen if you don’t change.

What do you need in order to change? Courage to see things that need changing. Acceptance and tolerance of loss. To be ready to let go of some things in order to have others. And one of the signs of good health is the capacity to ask for help in doing so.

But says, Grosz, a good book can also change the way you think. Yes, indeedy. And what more appropriate quote to use as I bow out of the Book Festival for another year. I’m back for a party thrown by my publisher in the Party Pavilion tomorrow night, but this is my last ticketed event. I’ve enjoyed all the sessions I’ve attended. I hope you’ve gleaned something worthwhile from peeping over my shoulder.

Quote in the entrance tent at the Book Festival

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