Tuesday, August 22, 2006

SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES

I make no apology for taking a volume by this author off the shelf so soon after writing about another of his books... After all, today is his birthday!

It all began one August day in a long hot summer month of my youth. I opened a book and read:

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys…”


I was hooked! Just as I was when I read Charles Dickens' line: “Marley was dead to begin with…” The same cunningly clever opening: something that needs to be understood and explained and the knowledge that it is, first of all, just the beginning…

I didn’t know then that the author of this story I was about to read revered Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as one of his favourite books.

Something Wicked This Way Comes - the title, courtesy of one of the Witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth - is an irresistible beckoning, bony finger.

Resistance is useless…

It is a dark tale, darkly told, about what happened - or what might have happened, or might yet happen - in the misty, musty, leaf-rustling days of October…

Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade are the best of friends. They are also opposites. One blonde, the other dark-haired, both born on Halloween: Will at one minute to midnight, Jim at one minute after midnight. One is drawn to the light, the other summoned by the dark.

Then, into the sleepy, autumnal atmosphere of their small mid-west American town comes Tom Fury, the seller of lightning rods, with a bag rattling with curiously-wrought ironmongery and muttered warnings of storms to come...

AND COME THEY DO…


In the early hours of a moonless night, a mournful train-whistle heralds the arrival of a carnival that will change the lives of everyone in the town forever.

Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show offers a variety of apparently harmless candyfloss laughs and thrills. But behind the flaps of the great black tent, lurk terrifying freaks; and the seemingly innocuous attractions set up along the midway are anything but what they seem: a Mirror-Maze that reveals ugly reflections of untrue futures; a Ferris Wheel that spins its passengers into oblivion and a Carousel that can ride you backwards to youth or forwards to death...

Will and Jim discover the secret of the dark carnival and its long, torturous history winding its way across the world and down the years. For them alone: the challenge of confronting and overcoming raw evil; it is their destiny, but it is a task that puts their friendship and their very lives at risk…

I treasured that book; became the passionate lover of the story: writing and broadcasting about it whenever I got the opportunity, spreading the gospel that this is a tale that everyone should read once before they forget what it is to have been young...

In 1986, many years after my first reading of Something Wicked, Ray and I met for one of our sporadic meetings - infrequent only because, most of the time, the breadth of the Atlantic divides our lives. Anyway, on this occasion, we had lunch at the Walt Disney Studio where Something Wicked film-sets still stood on the back lot, so Ray signed my copy of the first British hardback edition of the book-that-would-become-the-film with an appropriate location-tag!



Why do those who love this book have feelings towards it that are both proprietorial and evangelical?

Like so much of Ray’s writings, it is partly to do with the way in which the author luxuriates in language: if you come to Bradbury when you are still young and learning the mystery and mastery of words, then you cannot help but apprentice yourself to someone who is not only a craftsman but also (very probably) a magician!

Bradbury books fizz and sizzle on the eye and the ear: the rich, almost baroque, architecture of the narrative; the startling, metaphor-embellished paragraphs; the lavish, adjective-encrusted sentences; the audacious theatricality of vision and the razor-sharp observation with which the characters are given life and costumed for the beautiful and bizarre dramas they are called on to enact…

The man was tall as a lamp post. His pale face, lunar pockmarks denting it, cast light on those who stood below. His vest was the colour of fresh blood. His eyebrows, his hair, his suit were licorice black, and the sun-yellow gem which stared from the tie pin thrust in his cravat was the same unblinking shade and bright crystal as his eyes.

The name is Dark.

He flourished a white calling card. It turned blue. Whisper. Red. Whisk. A green man dangled from a tree stamped on the card. Flit. Shh.

Dark. And my friend with the red hair is Mr Cooger. Of Cooger and Dark’s…

Flip-flick-shh. Names appeared, disappeared on the white square.

Combined Shadow Shows…

Tick-wash.

And cross-continental Pandemonium Theatre Company.

He paused…

Are you… CURIOUS?


Read my interview with Ray, The Brabury Machine here.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

MARY POPPINS


The blog post below has earned me a nomination for the Most Fascinating Blog of 2012 Award: one of 93 blogs nominated by Librarians from a pool of over 2,300 submissions.

Voting closed on 6 March 2012
and whilst my blog didn't win, it earned Ex Libris 10th place out of the 93 nominations in the running for the award.

Thank you to all my readers who voted for PLT, Miss Poppins and Me!
There was some recent talk on My Blog (or, I should say, since you're reading this blog, 'on my Other Blog!) about Mary Poppins, which has prompted me - on what is, today, the 107th anniversary of her creator's birth - to post the following reminiscence, entitled...

TEA with MARY POPPINS

I was going to tea with Mary Poppins! Well, no, not exactly, but I was going to tea with P L Travers, who had written the Mary Poppins books, and at that precise moment I was walking down a street of neat-and-tidy-looking houses that reminded me very much of Cherry Tree Lane…

True, Shawfield Street - off the King’s Road in London’s Chelsea – didn’t boast any really grand houses (with two gates) like that owned by Miss Lark and none of them were quite as unusual or as exciting as the ship-shape home of Admiral Boom… But, as I arrived at the door of number 29, I felt as if I might expect to find Robertson Ay asleep on the doorstep or hear the argumentative voices of Mrs Brill and Ellen coming up from the basement…

This all happened over twenty years ago, but I remember it now as vividly as if it had only happened yesterday…

I’d been invited to come to tea at four o’clock and I was a little early – ten minutes early to be precise – because I really didn’t want to be late and keep Mary Poppins waiting...

I went up the steps to the front door – which, rather surprisingly, was painted candyfloss pink – and I rang the bell.

Silence.

I rang again.

Still silence.

Had I got the wrong day, I wondered.

Then a window, two storeys up, flew open and a head popped out and asked, in a brisk tone, “Are you Brian Sibley?”

I said that I was.

“Well,” said the head, “you are early!” And the window rattled shut again.

I waited. And I waited. For the full ten minutes I waited - until the clock on a nearby church struck ‘four’. Only then did a woman with curly grey hair and bright forget-me-not blue eyes open the door.

So, this was P (for Pamela) L (for Lyndon) Travers…

I noticed that she was wearing a pair of ‘sensible shoes’ of the kind Mary Poppins wore; but, in contrast, she sported a very un-Poppinsish dress with lots of frills and flounces, a number of jingly-jangly bracelets and bangles (rather like those favoured by Miss Lark, I thought) and a chunky turquoise necklace.

After my wait on the doorstep, I was a little nervous, but she welcomed me in with a smile, threw my coat over the back of a noble rocking-horse who galloped up the hallway and showed me into the room where, many times afterwards, I would come to have tea and talk with the woman who introduced the world to Mary Poppins.

When Jane and Michael Banks once asked Mary Poppins who she would choose to be if she wasn't Mary Poppins, she replied, in her sharp, non-nonsense tone: “Mary Poppins.” It is a typical Poppins response: supremely confident, yet - at the same time – as mysterious and elusive as the place where a rainbow ends…

And, sometimes, P L Travers could be much the same. For one thing, that was not her real name: when she was born, in Australia in 1899, she was called Helen Lyndon Goff. Then, as a young woman she became an actress and a dancer and took a ‘stage name’: “Pamela” (which she thought sounded pretty and actressy), “Lyndon” (her own second name and a reminder that her ancestors came from Ireland, the land of myths and stories) and “Travers” which was her father’s first name. He had died when she was seven years old and she never forgot how much she had loved him and missed him.

I think Mr Banks in the stories is, probably, rather like her father and although Pamela used to tell people that he was a sugar-planter in Australia, at the time that she was born he was working in a bank – just like Jane and Michael’s father.

Pamela usually got irritated if you talked about her having ‘created’ Mary Poppins. She preferred to say that she had ‘discovered’ rather than ‘invented’ her, but as with so many things in Pamela’s life, you never quite knew…

She told me, for instance, that Mary Poppins had first blown into her imagination – rather as she blows into the lives of the Banks family – when she was recovering from an illness in an old country cottage in Sussex.

She said that somewhere - in that strange state between being ill and getting better – the idea of a person like Mary Poppins had come to her.

The truth, however, is that several years earlier she had written a short story called ‘Mary Poppins and the Match Man’ that was published in a New Zealand newspaper.

This story was an early version of the second chapter of Mary Poppins in which Bert accompanies her on her ‘Day Out’ and they enjoy a wonderful tea with heaps of raspberry jam-cakes!


Anyway, during that illness, she obviously thought up some new stories and wrote them down and the first book, Mary Poppins, was published in 1934, with illustrations by Mary Shepard, the daughter of the man who drew Winnie-the-Pooh.


The following year, she wrote her second book, Mary Poppins Comes Back and, then after a nine-year gap, the third book in the series appeared. Pamela had wanted to call it Good-bye, Mary Poppins, but eventually – after her publisher begged her not to be quite so final - it was renamed Mary Poppins Opens the Door.

And, as it happens, it wasn’t goodbye to Mary Poppins because, eight years later, P L Travers wrote Mary Poppins in the Park and the practically perfect nanny then reappeared in various spin-offs including an alphabet book Mary Poppins from A to Z (which, for some reason, was later translated into Latin) and a book of stories and recipes entitled Mary Poppins in the Kitchen. Late in life, the author wrote two more slim volumes: Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and, finally in 1988, Mary Poppins and the House Next Door.


“If you are looking for autobiographical facts,” P L Travers once wrote, “Mary Poppins is the story of my life.” This seems an unlikely claim when you think that Mary Poppins goes inside a chalk pavement picture, slides up banisters, arranges tea-parties on the ceiling and has a carpet bag which is both empty and yet contains everything.

But if we take her at her word, we can find many things in her books that spring from her own life and shaped the stories she told…

For example, several of her fictional characters have names borrowed from people Pamela had known in her childhood - among them a strange little old woman with two tall daughters who ran the local general store where the young Pamela bought sweets. Her name, of course, was – as it is in the stories - Mrs Corry.

As for Miss Poppins herself, her first name was probably inspired by the younger of Pamela’s two sisters who was known in the family as ‘Moya’ – the Irish version of ‘Mary’.

As for ‘Poppins’… Well, Pamela never gave any clues as to where that name came from. But when she first arrived in London to work as a journalist, she used an office near Fleet Street and on her way to visit nearby St Paul’s Cathedral – home to the Bird Woman – she would have passed a little lane with the curious name, ‘Poppins Court’.


Unlike today's street signs, early London gazetteers did not include the apostrophe and Poppins Court was once the site of a 14th Century inn called ‘The Poppinjay’ that was owned by the Abbots of Cirencester and had an inn-sign displaying the Abbey's crest: a parrot-like bird.

And while we're talking parrots, as it were...

Although she and her sisters never had a Mary Poppins for a nanny, they did have an Irish maid named Bertha --- or maybe she was called Bella, Pamela could never quite remember! Bella (or Bertha) was a marvellous character with almost as many eccentric relatives as Mary Poppins.

What’s more, Bertha – or Bella – possessed something that was her pride and joy: a parrot-headed umbrella. "Whenever she was going out," Pamela once told me, "the umbrella would be carefully taken out of tissue-paper and off she would go, looking terribly stylish. But, as soon as she came back, the umbrella would be wrapped up in tissue-paper once more.”

You will remember that Mary Poppins always carried her umbrella, regardless of the weather, simply because it was too beautiful not to be carried. “How could you leave your umbrella behind,” asks the author, “if it had a parrot’s head for a handle?”

"Spit-spot into bed," was a favourite phrase of her mother's, and other bits of Mary Poppins' character were clearly inspired by Pamela's spinster aunt, Christina Saraset, whom everybody called 'Aunt Sass'. She was a crisp, no-nonsense woman with a sharp tongue and a heart of gold who, like Mary Poppins, was given to making "a curious convulsion in her nose that was something between a snort and a sniff."

When Pamela once suggested to her aunt that she might write about her, the elderly lady replied: "What! You put me in a book! I trust you will never so far forget yourself as to do anything so vulgarly disgusting!" This indignant response was followed up with a contemptuous, "Sniff, sniff!" Now, doesn't that sound just like Mary Poppins? Equally, it might have been P. L. Travers herself who said something along the same lines to me, when I rashly suggested, one day, that I might write her life-story!

As a young girl, Pamela took dancing lessons and there seems to be dancing, of some kind or other, in every one of the books - remember Mary Poppins joining all the birds and beasts at the zoo in dancing the Grand Chain? Or the Red Cow who catches a falling star on her horn and can’t stop dancing?

And, speaking of stars, reminds me that as a child Pamela had been captivated by the beauty of the constellations she saw in the clear southern skies above her home in the Australian outback.

She never lost her fascination with star-gazing and there are stars scattered throughout the pages of all her books. In one story, Mrs Corry, her two gargantuan daughters and Mary Poppins paste Gingerbread Stars on to the night sky and in another, Maia (one of the stars in the constellation known as the Pleiades), comes down to earth to do her Christmas shopping.

Over the years that I knew Pamela we had many conversations but the one I remember most clearly took place not long before she died at the grand age of 96 and it was also about a star.

I had asked her if she thought perhaps another story - maybe one last tale about Mary Poppins - might come to her. “I think it might,” she replied slowly, “because, the other day, on the street outside, I found a star on the pavement!”

“A star?” I repeated, with surprise.

“Yes,” she said softly, “a star. Go and look for it yourself. I hope I shall find out where it came from and what it is doing there.”

It was dusk when I let myself out of the candy-pink door of 29 Shawfield Street and headed off to look for that star. Light was failing, but I found it, at last: just as Pamela had said - a star-shape, faintly but clearly marked in the surface of a paving stone.

A puzzled passer-by looked quizzically at the man staring intently at what looked like a very ordinary pavement. But I was remembering the words of the old snake, the Hamadryad, on that night of the full moon when Mary Poppins took Jane and Michael to the zoo:
“We are all made of the same stuff... The tree overhead, the stone beneath us, the bird, the beast, the star - we are all one, all moving to the same end...”

Like Mary Poppins, P L Travers saw - and gave others the ability to see - the magical in very ordinary and everyday things.

She had discovered something as rare and amazing as a star in a London street and, then, she had given it away...

I hope she found out why it was there…

Of course, Mary Poppins would have the answer, but, as you know, she would never, never tell...

© Brian Sibley, 2006

Saturday, August 05, 2006

The BARD’s GUIDE to ABUSES and AFFRONTS

This is another of my favourite volumes from the ‘loo-library’! Published by Running Press (2001), with wood engravings by John Lawrence, The Bard’s Guide to Abuses and Affronts contains a generous supply of excellent put-downs penned by the man from Stratford-upon-Avon with a quill dipped in vitriol!

If you ever want to tell someone EXACTLY what you think of them, but find yourself lost for words, you could do worse than quote the Bard and here are a few suitably poisonous insults that are possibly worth committing to memory:
That kiss is as comfortless as frozen water to a starved snake.
- Titus Andronicus


There is no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.
- Henry IV, Part I


The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.
- Corialanus


You are like the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart.
- Hamlet


I was searching for a fool when I found you.

- As You Like It


Thou hast no more brain than I have in mine elbows.
- Troilus and Cressida


You are not worth the dust which the rude wind blows in your face.
- King Lear


Thou art unfit for any place but hell.
-
Richard III