On two wheels in New Caledonia

New Caledonia Today

by Guest Author, Anthony Nanson


The first time I came back from New Caledonia, in 2007, I showed my friend Peter a map of the country and he said, ‘It looks like it could be a great place to cycle in.’ Peter is crazy about cycling, has cycle-toured in many countries. When I returned to Caledonia ten years later, he customised a bike specially for my needs: tough enough to handle rough roads, good on tarmac too, and able to carry four paniers with full camping kit.

There was lots of preparation for this trip, and lots of expense – it’s about as far away as you can go from Gloucestershire – and it’s not entirely straightforward to transport a bicycle by air. So you can imagine how I felt, my first day in Nouméa, when I asked at the tourist office about the best route to cycle north…

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Hugh Lupton’s The Ballad of John Clare

51vnf9m27hl-_sx311_bo1204203200_Among the leading figures of the British storytelling revival, Hugh Lupton is one very worthy of ecocritical attention. Shows such as On Common Ground (performed with Chris Wood) and The Liberty Tree (performed with Nick Hennessey) passionately engage with the history of dissent and land politics in England. His first novel, The Ballad of John Clare, expands to book length On Common Ground’s tale of the young Clare’s doomed love for Mary Joyce amidst the onset of enclosure.

In the stage show Lupton explicitly equates the external landscape with Clare’s own inscape, so when the peasant-poet is alienated from the land by enclosure he is at the same time driven ‘out of his mind’. The novel, on the other hand, does not take us beyond the genesis of his poetic genius and his madness as two halves of the same seed of potential. It’s narrated in a rhythmic oral voice deploying, like Clare, elements of dialect syntax and vocabulary, and from an external, highly visualised perspective that only glancingly dips inside the characters’ consciousness. An enigmatic narrative ‘I’ is briefly introduced at the beginning; only the revelation of this narrator’s identity on the final page allows us, in a satisfying gestalt, to make sense of the metaphysical relationship between the system of perspective and Clare’s mind.

Using a carefully deployed set of characters, Lupton shows the differential effects of enclosure for different strata of the community. The big landowners get richer. Middling ones, like Mary’s father, do okay. Small-time farmers go bankrupt because of the cost of fencing their allocation. Day labourers, like Clare, get work doing the fencing for the landowners, but are then deprived of resources they once took from the commons to supplement their meagre wages. Squatters on the commons get moved on, their homes burnt down. Gypsies are eliminated. Trees are felled and streams straightened into dykes: ‘With every stroke of iron to timber there is a sudden veering in the flight of a bird; a sudden start in the winter-sleep of badger, hedgehog, mole; a sudden shift in the deep droning note of bees in their skeps against the church wall’ (167).

The consequences are not just economic. Enclosure obstructs access to the merestones marking the parish boundary that’s traditionally walked on Rogation Sunday. The break-up of the big shared fields makes agricultural work less sociable. Lupton thickens his story of enclosure and Clare and Mary’s romance by means of an encyclopaedic presentation of folk culture: hunting, harvesting, shearing, music, morris plays, the fair, superstitions, folk medicine, seasonal ceremonies and games. He doesn’t glamorise the hardship of rustic toil; he conveys how this unlettered community possessed a sophisticated culture, that bound the community together and to the ecosystem they inhabited, and that all this will be swept away by a reorganisation of land use motivated by the greed of the rich for more wealth at the expense of the poor and the wild. Let the reader judge what that says to England today, exactly two hundred years since the year the story is set.

First published in Green Letters, No. 15, 2011


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Creatures the World Forgot – and Maybe for a Reason?

Creatures the World Forgot

I’m conscious this blog tends to wander off a bit from its declared focus on the exotic and the prehistoric. So let’s get back to basics – and a look at another prehistoric movie classic. I never saw this film as a kid (it’s an 18). I didn’t even see it in the course of my systematic researching of prehistory when I was working on Deep Time. In fact I’ve only just seen it, now the price of the DVD has dropped enough to justify buying it.

Creatures the World Forgot (1971) was a follow-up from Hammer to cash in on the success of One Million Years B.C. (1966) and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). There’s a vague sense early on that it’s reprising the same basic storyline – edgy encounter between brunet and blond tribes – but then things get more complex, involving two generations of chiefs and medicine women and the age-old trope of rivalry between two brothers. I found it quite hard to keep track of the plot – at the level of character motivations – in large part because communication is reduced to the most basic of grunts (no subtitles) and gestures.

This primitive grunting is part and parcel of the film’s self-presentation as a kind of drama documentary. Unlike its campy predecessors, it seems to take itself seriously. That means, for starters, no dinosaurs. So none of the Ray Harryhausen or Jim Danforth stop-motion effects that were the most celebrated feature (bar Raquel Welch) of the earlier films. What you get instead is superb photography of real African landscapes, an anthropological enthusiasm for primitive survival technologies and body ornamentation, and real African animals. It’s a shame, though, not to see any serious big game. The most formidable creature is a crazed wildebeest that implausibly – in speeded-up footage – attacks and kills one of the main characters.

Star billing in the film’s publicity went to ‘the Norwegian beauty’ Julie Ege (she’d come second in the Miss Norway contest), but her character’s role in the story is minimal. The focus is much more on the father and two sons and an older medicine woman whose machinations seem to drive much of what happens. The 18 rating is undeserved; the level of violence would barely rate a 15 today, but the violence does seem harsher than in One Million Years B.C. and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth because of the consistently more realistic tone. I’d say the acting is better too, certainly than in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. The grim survivalism of these Palaeolithic hunters, the desperate competition for resources, power, women, has something serious to say about default human nature – and the perennial difficulties of getting the people of the world to live together peacefully.

All told, Creatures the World Forgot is not a badly made film; it just doesn’t have the creatures and the campiness to entertain in the way its predecessors may lead you to expect. One other thing to point out, which probably never crossed the minds of the film-makers back in 1971: in this African landscape, populated by African animals, why are the prehistoric people all Europeans?

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Valerian and Laureline and the Dream of Paradise

ValerianI was wrong to think that the guy and the girl always had equal billing in the title of the original comic series: Valérian et Laureline was for most of its history Valérian, agent spatio-temporel. But I still reckon the only reason they called the film Valerian (and the City of a Thousand Planets), despite its two protagonists having fastidiously equal roles, was fear that action-adventure American men would assume that something called Valerian and Laureline must be some kind of romance they wouldn’t want to see.

There was a bit of a romantic subplot and the less said about that, the better, except that I really wish Luc Besson had spent a few euros from his US$200 million budget to let a good scriptdoctor sort out that thread of the story. Aside from those embarrassing scenes, the film is magnificent. It is true to the zany humour of Christin and Mézières’ bandes dessinées – something else that might wrongfoot action-adventure fans – and it’s more than true to the comics’ visual inventiveness, hugely influential as they have been on SF visual culture; not least on Star Wars – as Besson’s film repeatedly reminds us. The sheer abundance of imaginative visual complexity seems to me an affirmation of the wonderfulness of diversity, complexity, intricacy – of cultures, creatures, habitats, places – in the real world as much as in fantasy.

I’m aware that much of the appeal of that, as in John Carter and Avatar, depends on the kind of exoticising of other cultures which goes back to Orientalist painting and literature and which the critics remind us went hand in hoof with European imperialism. Worse yet, maybe, when it comes to the paradise planet Mül and its scantily clothed natives who live in harmony with their environment and never forget to ‘give something back to nature in return for all that she gives us’, who might be seen as romanticising or essentialising the indigenous peoples – in Africa, Polynesia? – who inspired them. But what’s the alternative? Would it really be more okay to depict indigenous peoples as having degraded the ecosystems they inhabit? Or as lacking adequate medical knowledge, say?

The people of Mül have the best of both worlds; they choose to live close to nature but they have sophisticated technological capability when they need it. Future primitive. Something to aspire to, I’d say. Friends I saw Valerian with came out saying they wished they could live on Mül. Why shouldn’t they feel that? Isn’t it because of such a longing for earthly paradise that people go in their millions on beach holidays, hoping to catch at least a glimmer of it? I was lucky enough to live for a year between the mountains and the sea in a not too developed part of Greece, and it was the year of my life when I have felt most intensely happy.

The natives of Mül lost their planet as a result of Earthmen’s destructiveness. Their longing for the paradise that was their birthright becomes a mission to remake it. Light-hearted though the film may be, the systematic determination with which they pursue that task, together with the scale of Besson’s effort to bring to life such complex imagined worlds, made me wonder what could be achieved in our own world if we truly put our mind to it. The turnover last year of the RSPB, one of the world’s biggest conservation charities, was slightly less than the cost of making Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Organisations like the RSPB do fantastic work, have rewilded plots of land and saved species from extinction, but of course it’s never enough, not when set against the scale of ecological destruction wrought by modern civilisation. I’m not saying – I don’t want to say – we shouldn’t spend millions on film fantasies like Valerian, but if we can muster the cost and the effort to create such astonishing dreamworlds, do we not have it in our power to make, restore, sustain beautiful places on our own planet too?

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The Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy

51hlse5letl-_sx310_bo1204203200_Fantasy as a dedicated genre didn’t really exist in Greece till very recently. Many of the stories gathered in The Dedalus Book of Greek Fantasy, dating from the 19th century to the turn of the 21st, are by mainstream literary authors, including the major poet Constantine Cavafy and the arch-surrealist Andreas Embirikos. Recent years have seen the publication of several Greek anthologies of fantasy and science fiction, thanks mainly to the efforts of editor Makis Panorios. David Connolly’s selections  draw heavily but not exclusively from Panorios’s anthologies. It’s to Connolly’s credit as a translator that all thirty stories come through in engaging and well-crafted English prose.

Free of the constraints of genre expectation – except perhaps Dedalus’s taste for ‘distorted reality’ – the stories are extremely diverse. They range from the straightforward retelling of folktale in Emmanouil Roïdis’s ‘Blossom’, through the absurdist surrealism of Nano Valaoritis’s ‘The Daily Myth or The Headless Man’, the exotic traveller’s yarn of Fotis Kontoglou in ‘Pedro Cazas’, and the occultism of Tassos Roussos’s ‘The Last Alchemist’, to dystopian science fiction in Alexandros Schinas’s ‘The Rulers’. Heroic fantasy is conspicuous by its absence . The sequencing of the stories by date exposes an increasing interest in science fiction in later work.

One of the delights of imaginative fiction written in other languages is the displacement of default Anglocentric perspective. In Theodoros Grigoriadis’s ‘Theocles’ the research project to make contact with intelligent beings elsewhere in the galaxy is conducted not by American but by Greek scientists and the person chosen to leave earth to meet them is, too, a Greek. Andreas Lascaratos’s traveller in ‘Journey to the Planet Jupiter’ is relieved to discover the Jovians speak Greek. And in ‘Westminster’ Yorgos Theotokas exoticises the London Underground as a locus of gothic nightmare where the trains never stop and are operated by people who are completely mad.

Given the diversity of stories, it’s hard to make generalisations. Surrealism caught on strongly in Greek literature and there’s plenty of evidence of that in this book. Here’s a snippet from Aris Sfakianakis in ‘It Was Already Past Midnight’: ‘Floating in the white sauce in place of mussels were human lips … Moreover, the lips were painted and appeared to be alive as they slowly opened and closed, emitting tiny indeterminate sounds, rather like sighs.’ Quite often the tone is urbanely jaunty. This, for example, is the opening of ‘A Day Like Any Other’ by Tassos Leivaditis: ‘Waking up fully dressed in bed, in a room you’ve never seen before, is, of course, a bad omen for the day about to begin. But not being able to remember how you came to be in this unknown house is something of a nightmare.’ That there’s a tendency for women to be presented in strongly sexualised ways may not be the sin of sins, but the fact that all thirty authors in the book are men strongly suggests some scope – I suspect in Greek fantasy as a whole – for redressing the balance on that score.

First published in Vector, No. 275, 2014


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Myths, Genres, and Forms in Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism

1063554Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism is a landmark of literary criticism to which I found my way via its influence on the Tolkien scholarship of Tom Shippey and Margaret Anne Doody’s superb book The True Story of the Novel. Frye’s discussion of the function of the imagination also reminds me of the thinking of Ted Hughes and Lindsay Clarke.

Frye organises his grand analysis of the whole realm of literature by means of various dimensions – ‘modes’, ‘symbols’, ‘myths’, ‘genres’, ‘rhythms’, ‘forms’ – all of which terms he defines in his own ways that don’t always match more familiar ways of understanding them. What I love about his taxonomy of literature is that he doesn’t try to force books into a small number of procrustean categories, but instead he sets up continua or fields containing countless potential gradations or mixtures. For example, his theory of ‘myths’ may be pictured as a wheel of fortune, in which different nuances of narrative pattern rotate from ‘comedy’ at the wheel’s summit, via the downbeat trend of ‘irony/satire’, to ‘tragedy’ at the nadir, and then upbeatwards via ‘romance’ back to comedy.

In his chapter on ‘genres’ Frye insists that ‘fiction’ be defined not in contrast to ‘non-fiction’ but rather as the genre of literature in which prose predominates. He regards as ‘fiction’ any prose writing that may claim to be literature, and argues that prose that’s determined to present itself as purely ‘non-fictional’ will inevitably slide either towards emotion-laden rhetoric devoid of intellect (propaganda, advertising) or towards flat propositional language devoid of emotion (technical and most academic writing). The effect is to collapse into the same arena of ‘fiction’, alongside novels and short stories, genres like memoir, travelogue, nature writing, and indeed anything we might normally regard as ‘non-fiction’ – so long as it’s written with some kind of literary quality.

Frye goes on to analyse fiction in terms of four primary forms – ‘novel’, ‘confession’, ‘anatomy’, and ‘romance’. Here ‘novel’ has nothing to do with the length of the narrative; it refers to fiction populated by psychologically realistic characters, in contrast to the more stylised archetypal characters of ‘romance’. ‘Confession’ is basically the form of autobiography, narrated in the first person. ‘Anatomy’ is the form of fiction concerned more with exploring ideas than characters. The title of Frye’s own book – Anatomy of Criticism – implicitly acknowledges that even so analytical and scholarly a book, because it engages the reader with literary skill, may ultimately be seen as a work of fiction.

You may try to seek pure examples of each form, but in practice they are blended in endlessly varying combinations. Most ‘novels’ contain some admixture of ‘romance’. Frye elucidates Joyce’s Ulysses as a work of fiction in which all four forms are present and of more or less equal importance. He doesn’t mention Tolkien, but it occurs to me that, though The Lord of the Rings may seem most obviously a ‘romance’, it also contains substantial ingredients of ‘novel’ (concentrated in the hobbit protagonists) and ‘anatomy’ (the encyclopaedic examination of history, geography, and lore); ‘confession’ occurs only in the ‘editorial’ paratext with which Tolkien frames the story – and perhaps in the occasional Gandalfian monologue.

I can’t resist applying this lens to my own novel, Deep Time. It’s a ‘novel’, for sure, having a number of psychologically complex characters, but it’s permeated also by systems of archetype and symbol characteristic of ‘romance’. It is written in first person as an intimate ‘confession’ and is also an ‘anatomy’ in its kaleidoscopic exploration of geological time and the relationship between wild nature and being human. I take comfort from Frye’s observation that novels containing a strong element of ‘anatomy’ usually baffle the critics when they first appear.

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David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

51wqgcxqrbl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I was keen to read David Mitchell’s new novel because I loved Cloud Atlas. Like that masterpiece, The Bone Clocks comprises six novella-length sections each narrated by a different character in a different time period. But these narratives are closer linked than in Cloud Atlas, taking place at roughly decade intervals and reincorporating the same characters, so the whole adds up to a single story in a single fictional frame. This integration of the story has posed certain structural challenges to a writer whose primary interest, both here and in Cloud Atlas, is in the kind of high-performance pastiche that gets you listed for the Man Booker Prize.

The narrator of the first section, Holly Sykes, daughter of a Gravesend publican, is 15 years old in 1984. She crops up as a character in every section, so we witness her progress through life as the decades go by, and she returns, with satisfying inevitability, to narrate the final section in 2043, when she’s in her seventies. The second section is told by a Cambridge undergraduate, an arrogant twat who ruthlessly exploits for his own gain anyone who trusts him. The third narrator is more sympathetic, a war reporter whose only flaw is his fatal addiction to his work. The fourth section, extending from 2015 to 2020, follows Crispin Hershey, onetime ‘Wild Child’ of literature, now going to seed, whose grudge against a hatchet review of his latest novel shamelessly recycles a plot driver from Cloud Atlas.

These first four sections revel in evoking the narrators’ voices, from the stroppy semi-articulacy of the working-class teenager – ‘I’d never nicked anything in my life and really I almost peed myself’ (p. 41) – to the jaded sophistication of the has-been novelist: ‘I see my reflection in the mirrored wall, and recall a wise man telling me that the secret of happiness is to ignore your reflection in lift mirrors once you’re over forty’ (p. 305). The present-tense narration – so overused these days – is justified by a number of scenes where, for reasons I won’t spell out, the narrator loses their memory of what they’ve just related. These four sections also work hard to evoke the flavour of each decade – with cultural and current-affairs references that are sometimes too obviously shoehorned in: ‘You say that, but reunification is going to cost the earth. My clients in Frankfurt are very jumpy about the fall-out’ (p. 113). The sections are linked by the network of connections between characters, of which Holly is the central node, and also by a hidden plot that now and again surfaces, unexplained, into the characters’ lives. At first glimpse, I thought we had to do with the supernatural or beings from another dimension. It quickly becomes clear that the individuals in question are human beings blessed with advanced ‘psychosoteric’ powers.

Little is explained about these adepts till the fifth section, set in 2025, when a narrator who is one of them reveals all via a sequence of big infodumps and flashbacks. There are goodies (Horologists) and baddies (Anchorites); I best not say much more. This narrator’s voice is less distinctive than the previous sections’, the life and times of the 2020s are little evoked – beyond a few token advances in IT – and neither scenes nor secondary characters are strongly realised. What we get instead is a Latinate lexicon to refer to psychosoteric phenomena, some nice visualisation of the metaphysical landscape of death, and a high-stakes Harry-Potter-style combat sequence that seems pitched for the big screen but also made me wonder whether Mitchell’s intention was parody.

After that, the final section is anticlimactic, despite its subject being the collapse of civilisation when the oil runs out. It’s a well-imagined and all-too-plausible portrayal of a local community struggling along with their chicken-keeping and homemade clothes, as promoted by today’s Transition movement – only for this tolerable existence to be overrun by gangsterish survival of the fittest when the Chinese-sponsored Cordon of law enforcement ceases to be economically viable. The impact of this scenario is weakened by the fact that – bar one brief prognostication that the internet won’t last for ever – it’s not set up by the rest of the novel. The psychosoteric plot is abandoned, has no consequence, except to provide a deus ex machina.

As in Cloud Atlas, there is a sustained theme of the perennial moral choice between coldly exploiting others to serve one’s own interests and, on the other hand, warm-hearted service of others – in ideological terms, the choice between the right and the left. The relative autonomy of the six texts in Cloud Atlas permits the novel to be unified by a theme. In The Bone Clocks, theme isn’t enough; the narrative continuity between the sections demands more coherent narrative structure.

If the relationship between the science-fiction plot and the verbal pyrotechnics of pastiche is strained, and the crucial fifth section is under-imagined and over-explained, the first four sections could use some polishing to eliminate intrusive detail and a sometimes forced tone of voice: ‘Still, boyfriends act goofy to hide stuff, any magazine’ll tell you. Wish I could phone him right now. Wish they’d invent phones you can speak to anyone anywhere anytime on’ (p. 3). During a lovely send-up of a literary festival, Mitchell quotes the trasher of Hershey’s novel to throw in what sounds like a ironic acknowledgement of risks Mitchell takes in his own writing: ‘One: Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower. Two: the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look. Three: what sure sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?’ (pp. 281–2).

The Bone Clocks is better than that, it’s well worth reading, but I fear it may have been written against a deadline that prevented Mitchell doing full justice to his genius.

This review was first published in Vector, No. 280, 2015

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