Hazel McHaffie

Far from the Madding Crowd

Literary drama

Time once again for my annual sortie into the world of play-writing and producing a little drama for my grandchildren – our nineteenth would you believe! The youngsters, as ever, rose to the occasion magnificently, applying themselves to all the activities – from deportment lessons to tasting potions, from sewing bookmarks to deciphering Cockney slang, from picking pockets to exploring archaic texts – with their usual aplomb, and that in spite of half the assembled company still recovering from this really nasty respiratory bug that’s rife just now.

(The stage is a book-filled house and no shots are posed, so what you see is the play as it happens.)

In a nutshell, the story centres on a Johanna Spyri Heidi-lookalike, who is an avid reader.

On this occasion as Heidi loses herself in each book, characters emerge from the shadows and take her into their worlds. Enter The Artful Dodger (Oliver Twist).

… the Black Witch (Hansel and Gretel) and Morgana Pendragon (Merlin).

Titania, Queen of the Fairies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) works her magic and leads the cast to new adventures,

… exercising a softening effect.

Marmee March (Little Women) lulls everyone into a false sense of security with her homespun wisdom and American notions.

But things then start to really hot up. Enter a fabulously rich and imposing Mr Boldwood (Far from the Madding Crowd) who soon falls prey to the Artful Dogder’s pickpocketing skills.

But even Mr Boldwood can only bow in the face of the whirlwind that is Lady Denny, distinction and breeding oozing from the tip of her bonnet to the toe of her boot.

… who sets about improving the marital stakes for all the young ladies.

It’s left to Little John (Robin Hood) to risk the Lady’s wrath, and rescue The Dodger, making his day with some man-to-man gutsy banter, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of flaming arrows.

We happily spanned centuries, social milieu, and fictional genres, and everyone went away with an armful of precious books, quite a number of them collectors’ items.

And the moral of the tale?
What terrific advantages these young people have over children from all those earlier periods; not to be taken for granted or squandered. Not least their literary inheritance: books and stories which can open up times and experiences and worlds in wonderful ways.
Treasures indeed.

PS. If you’re a fully paid up member of the anachronism police please don’t bother listing the errors; we already know we took untold liberties. This was a private members only production; the rules of engagement are fully understood.

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2017 reading plan

This week a research report by the insurer Aviva revealed that around one in 10 people do not own a single book. And if you home in on the 18-24 age bracket, that number rises to one in five! A fifth of young adults! Can you imagine a house with no books? I would feel totally bereft. But presumably these are households dominated by electronic gadgetry and they wouldn’t understand my love/hate relationship with technology. Hey ho.

Added to that, of course, so many good books have been adapted for stage and screen, so it’s possible to know what a book is about, and even what its underlying message is, and discuss it with others, without ever touching a paper copy. I was an avid fan of Thomas Hardy in my teens and read all his novels. I studied one of them – Under the Greenwood Tree – for English Lit O-level at school. I loved his stories, and nothing in my view can really compare to losing oneself in the written form …imagining …feeling …being, but I can well understand why many people would be quite content with the film version, unaware of what they’re missing. I myself  was given the DVD of Far from the Madding Crowd this Christmas and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The sad fact is that most people remain oblivious to the original source of these films. Do you, for instance know who wrote the book behind the new series, Apple Tree Yard, currently airing at prime-time on the BBC One channel? It’s being much hyped as a ‘provocative thriller’ and is being widely discussed on review pages, but precious little is said of the book behind it. I happen to be aware of the author’s name and credentials because Louise Doughty ran writing courses in the Telegraph a few years ago and I followed them. Otherwise her name would not be on my lips either, I’m ashamed to say; I too would home in on the merits or otherwise of actress Emily Watson‘s performance as the scientist Dr Yvonne Carmichael who is on trial for a crime we don’t yet know about.

But in my case films are not ‘instead of’ reading. Indeed, our house is home to thousands of real hold-in-your-hands books, two rows deep on each shelf in my study – currently seriously in need of cataloguing and re-shelving to create some order, it must be admitted. Last week I was dismayed to find I couldn’t lay my hand on We Need to Talk about Kevin, and to discover two copies of one of the fattest Harry Potter books. So I need to do something about it. But preferably something more than moving X from A to B.

As Jane Austen said: If a book is well-written, I always find it too short, and that thought has led to my creating a 2017 reading plan. First, home in on writers whose style I know I enjoy, whose books I shall gallop through, wallow in, find too short. And hopefully the sheer exuberance of reading will aid my own writing. Transferring the volumes from the tbr section to the hbr will clear some space, both physical and mental. Then I can tackle the row of worthy but denser volumes which I know I should read, but which don’t have the same immediate appeal.

Happy hours ahead! And hopefully order out of chaos.

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