Friday, November 30, 2007

GRIEF-STRICKEN

I decided it was time I read David Michaelis' Schulz and Peanuts, the recently published (and arguably controversial) biography of the creator of Charlie Brown and Snoopy whose cartoon creations are not just icons of American popular culture but also internationally beloved folk characters.

The book is controversial because, according to the subject's family (who now regret having authorized the book) Michaelis has represented Charles ('Sparky') Schulz as an essentially unhappy, unfulfilled man whose lifelong sadnesses and insecurities were the basis for the cartoon strip adventures featuring the Peanuts gang.

According to Michaelis: “[Schulz] was a complicated artist who had an inner life and embedded that inner life on the page. His anxieties and fears brought him Lucy and the characters in Peanuts. A normal person couldn’t have done it.”


Authorized biographies are, frankly, dodgy territory (I know, I've written two!): the seal of approval may give the biographer access to people who might not be so willing to cooperate with an unofficial chronicler, but it also tends to encourage interviewees to speak with a openness that places a heavy burden on the writer when the time comes to decide just how much candidness to go in for!

Since the subject of his book was dead, David Michaelis went for a 'warts and all' approach, although apart from an affair at the time that his first marriage was breaking-up there aren't much in the way of skeletons in the Schulz cupboard.

In fact, part of the difficulty with the book is that Schulz' life was pretty uneventful: he did what he did consistently well for many years, but not much else happened. As a result, Michaelis is forced into trying prove that everything in the Peanuts comic strips has some source of inspiration in Schulz' life and personality which effectively reduce the artist's very real genius to little more value than a series of thinly-veiled autobiographical sketches.

The portrait that emerges is rather dour and depressing and casts a long, somewhat chilly shadow over the cosily fuzzy public perception of Schulz's world and its 'Happiness is a Warm Puppy' philosophy.

Suddenly those episodes in which Charlie Brown fails to fly a kite or kick the football or summon up the courage to speak to the Little Red-Haired Girl are seen as Schulz grappling with bitter angst-ridden memories or exorcising ugly personal demons. In consequence, the reader finds many fondly remembered Peanuts episodes raising less of a smile than a shudder.

Click image to enlarge

I corresponded briefly with Schulz and wrote his obituary for The Times when he died, but I never met him and have no idea if he truly was the Mr Misery that emerges from Michaelis' sombre and - bizarrely for a work devoted to the work of a humorist - singularly humorless book.

I do know, however, that Schulz won the admiration of other professional cartoonists for a career spanning almost 50 years in which he single-handedly wrote and drew 17, 897 strips. One has only to look at dozens the tribute cartoons that were drawn by America's leading artists when Schulz put down his pen for the last time in 2000 to see the esteem in which he was held...


This is just one of many examples.

I also know - as do millions of others - that Schulz made us LAUGH: at Charlie Brown's unfailing stoicism, at Linus' philosophical astuteness, at Lucy's innate crabbiness, at Peppermint Patty's infallible optimism and, above all, at Snoopy's irrepressible joie de vivre: whether in doing the obvious doggy things including making it patently clear when it was SUPPER TIME or indulging in less usual canine activities such as dancing, skating, performing a puppet version of War and Peace on top of his dog-house, donning flying helmet and goggles in order to tackle the cursed Red Baron or sitting at the typewriter and pounding out a new magnum opus...

Click image to enlarge

David Michaelis' book may be the authorised word on Schulz, but it's unlikely to the the last word...


Images: © Charles Schulz

Saturday, November 03, 2007

GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS

One of top best-sellers last Christmas for those seeking something to go into the stocking of men of a certain age was Tom Cutler's 211 Things a Bright Boy Can Do.

This excellent manual was packed with useless facts and useful fun of the kind we have been so cruelly deprived of since the demise of those bumper books of things to try - and usually fail! - to make-and-do that proliferated in the days of our youth...

Well, a year has now rolled by and the season of present-buying looms once more, so it is good to see that, spurred on by Tom Cutler's efforts, Bunty Cutler (who is not Tom's formally estranged twin-sister) has published a companion volume: 211 Things a Bright Girl Can Do.

I can do no better than invite my sister, BRENDA SIBLEY, to review this worthy tome...


Arguably, of course, this ought to have been called 212 Things a Bright Girl Can Do, since everyone knows that any girl is bright enough to think of at least one thing (and usually a great many more) than even the brightest boy is capable of coming up with...

Howsoever, I have huge respect for the labours of Ms Cutler, whom I remember with giddy schoolgirl affection from my days in the Chalet School when she was our revered Vice-Captain.

No one, I can assure you, was better suited to that particular post than Bunty as, indeed, is ably shown by the contents of the concluding section of her book -- How to Be Bad: All you need to know to be a very naughty girl -- which contains such invaluable wrinkles as
'How to slide down a fireman's pole' (this is hot stuff, I tell you!), 'Complete whipcaft' (ah, the memories!), 'How to hide a file in a perfect Victoria sponge' (which I could certainly have done with knowing back in those days when I was dating Reggie - or was it Ronnie? - Kray) and 'How to strangle a man with your bare thighs' (which ditto) a procedure which can be accomplished in 11 easy stages although, as Bunty sagely advises, "better practise a bit first on a friend."

Lest anyone run a away with the idea that Bunty Cutler's book is solely devoted to such sensational topics - although, girls, I would personally recommend that you read page 233 ('How to pull off a man's shirt in a twinkling') before accepting any Christmas party invitations where 'turns' might be called for - there are oodles of really useful and truly indispensable KNOWLEDGE with a capital 'K'... Well, actually, as you can see, I used all capitals!

The book contains sections on cuisine (when haven't we all wanted to know 'How to make yogurt in a thermos flask'?), home-making (this Christmas many of my friends will be receiving my efforts after reading up on 'How to make a Mateus Rosé shell lamp'); hostess-craft which embraces all manner of sound advice for she with ambitions to be the "mostest", ranging from 'How to descend a staircase in high heels' and
(on a related problem) 'How to dance with a man shorter than yourself', plus discreet information on 'How to fart with grace and charm at the ambassador's do' which, again, brings back memories of the aftermath of those midnight feasts in dorm 3B at Chalet School!

The section How to be Completely Gorgeous is, naturally, a must for busy girls and the regime for losing six pounds in six hours is a miracle of determined thinking, while 'How to make a little black dress out of a bin liner' could be a life-saver for many -- though do, please, observe Bunty's warning not to iron!

Powder-Puff Mechanics will help you escape a vicious swarm of bees ("cover your face with whatever you have to hand - not golden syrup or Ribena, obviously..."), get rid of a spider from the bath, meet your ex's new girlfriend (always a test of a bright girl's stamina) and 'How to pack for a holiday without using more than five large suitcases': essential reading for
Victoria Beckham and, incidentally, my brother, Brian!

Bunty Cutler was always a whiz at games, so I knew that I could implicity trust the advice in the section amusingly entitled Jolly Hockysticks! which not only gives full instructions (with diagrams) on how to do a cartwheel, jump hopscotch and water-ski but will also save you acres of potential embarrassment at house parties by telling you 'How to throw overarm'!

More in the vein of hobbies than sports, there's all that you need to know about reading tea-leaves and identifying British wildflowers and - though it is scarcely anyone's pastime of choice - no fewer than 12 helpful hints on 'How to worm a cat', such as:
"Wrap cat in large bath towel, head just visible. Ask man to lie on cat and put pill in drinking straw. Force cat's mouth open with pencil and blow pill down cat's throat." Why, oh why, has no one put it quite so simply before?

So, my verdict on Bunty's
book? Absolutely topping: whether you are wanting to know how to make 'Flapjacks without fuss' or 'How to get out of a car without flashing your knickers', this is the book for you. As for me, I'm off to revise what I've learned from Bunty's comprehensive guide to 'Belly Dancing for the Complete Novice', after which I really must brush up on the old whipcraft... Altogether now: "Oh! The Deadwood Stage is a-headin' over the hills!"


Thanks, Brenda! And Bunty's book 211 Things a Bright Girl Can Do, published by HarperCollins at £10.99 is available from all good (and probably quite a few mediocre) bookshops or you can order copies of on-line together with (for any boys who missed out) the original male-designated volume as a double whammy from Amazon!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

LOOK-SEE

Hands up everyone who remembers Look and Learn?

I must begin by explaining my passion: every week, from the age of 8 or 9, I received a copy of The Children's Newspaper (on my parents insistence - as an antidote to my comic of choice: Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Weekly) and although TCN was crammed with articles and features of, as they say, 'interest'; it was, frankly, all a bit worthy.

I suppose I must have read four or five year's-worth of editions of TCN, but can't now recall to mind a single story or image! And yet I can conjour page after page of the Look and Learns that I used to pore over in the school library from its first magical appearance in January 1962.

Every now and again I'd poke my nose into a copy of Knowledge which were also in the library, but I always thought this rival publication, launched a year earlier than L&L, was really a bit on the stuffy side - certainly in comparison with L&L which was a magazine that lived up to its stated aim of providing "a treasure house of exciting articles, stories and pictures" and which positively exploded with vibrant, dynamic illustrations that grabbed the eye and hooked the imagination!


Click on images to enlarge

L&L had the all visual appeal of the comic but with a content - incredibly diverse, sometimes astonishing esoteric - that won the approval of educators and, most importantly, mums and dads!

Small wonder it launched with sales of a million copies and eventually settled down to a highly respectable 300,000 copies a week and, two years after its fist appearance of the news-stands, took over the aforementioned The Children's Newspaper.

Look at what was shoe-horned into the 24 pages of the first issue --- and all for the outlay of just ONE SHILLING:
A photograph of the young Prince of Wales, Charles, dominated the first cover, alongside a painting of the first Charles, Prince of Wales from 300 years earlier...

Elsewhere in this first issue, colour photographs and colour illustrations helped tell the history of Rome and reveal the wonders of nature; you could learn about Vincent van Gogh, the Grand Canyon, how Japanese children celebrated the festival of Shichi go san or how to keep a Basset hound.

Other articles probed the depths of space for life amongst the stars and below the ground for oil; the story of Parliament was magnificently illustrated across the centre pages; equally superb was the first leg of a trip exploring the history of towns and villages along the road from London to Dover; and for those readers who enjoyed stories as well as history, nature, science and art, there was a feature on Sindbad and the famous author and explorer who had translated his adventures plus the opening chapters of The Children’s Crusade by Henry Treece, and Jerome K Jerome’s famous Three Men in a Boat.

- Steve Holland, Archivist, Look and Learn
During its twenty-years and over 1000 issues, the role call of talent working on L&L - though, as kids we didn't know it - was impressive to say the least: historians Leonard Cottrell, John Prebble, Robert Erskine and Alfred Duggan; novelist and traveller Bruce Graeme; zoologist Maurice Burton and naturalist Maxwell Knight; and, yet to establish his career as an award-winning novelist, Michael Moorcock.

The artists represented the cream of the book illustration at the time and included such graphic artists - to name but a few - as Peter Jackson, C L Doughty, Ron Embleton, Don Lawrence, Angus McBride, Jesus Blasco and (below) Oliver Frey... .


Every single issue lived up to its title: we looked and we learned --- about so many things... About the natural world as it is and, as very dinosaur-loving kid knew, it once was...


About the lives and careers of statesmen, scientists and explorers...


About countries, cities and buildings...


About triumphant deeds and tragic events...


There were all manner of excitements and amazements: from flights of fancy...


To modern-day realities...


And future possibilities...


As well as, again and again, all those enticing windows into some of the greatest books, plays and poetry of the world: some of which I already knew and loved and others that, thanks to L&L, I went on to discover...




I probably skipped launch-editor David Stone's editorial description of L&L when, as thirteen year old I was excitedly racing through its colour-filled pages, but it seems to me, now, to pretty much sum up what the magazine was to its devoted readers:
Look and Learn is not a comic, or a dusty old encyclopaedia pretending to be an entertaining weekly paper. It is really like one of those fabulous caravans that used to set off to strange and unknown places and return laden with all sorts of wonderful things. In our pages is all the excitement, the wonder, the tragedy and the heroism of the magnificent age we live in, and of the ages which make up the traditions which shape all our lives.
I can't overstate the influence of L&L on my formative years - it bred in me an inquisitive fascination with facts, words and books which still lingers to this day and, I think, even informs some of the topics that turn up on this daily blog!

And now - joy of joys - there's a newly published Bumper Book of Look and Learn and 24- or 48-issue serial publications of the best of the original Look and Learns, "printed to have the same look and feel as the original..."

Full details can be found on the Look and Learn web-site which is as jam-packed with stuff as the original mag and where you can also read the full, fascinating history of the magazine and - fabulous time-waster this - browse the picture library of 19,073 images which can be downloaded or sent as e-cards...

So quit this page and start wallowing in a bit of pure, unadulterated nostalgia; and - look! - you never know, you might actually learn something!


Images: © 2007 Look and Learn

Saturday, October 27, 2007

A DEATH IS ANNOUNCED

Robert Alton Harris wrote:

You can be a king or a street sweeper,
But everybody dances with the Grim Reaper.


This reminded me of an exchange I once had with Discworld author, TERRY PRATCHETT, during an interview for a BBC book programme.

We were talking about DEATH, who appears as a character in many of the Discworld novels and who - contrary to expectations - has a butler (Albert), an adopted daughter (Ysabell), an assistant (Mort), a pale horse (Binky) and lives in a black-and-white, suburban villa with a golf course and a pond containing a skeletal trout!

"Just supposing," I said to Pratchett, "that the door to this studio was to suddenly whisper open and DEATH was to come in and lay his bony hand on your shoulder, what would you do?"

"Well," replied Pratchett, "there's nothing I could do! But that wouldn't matter, because I long ago learned to take life as it comes!"

He paused and then, with a wry smile, added: "Which, of course, when you think about it, is exactly what DEATH does: takes life as it comes!"

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

MEMORIES OF MOOMINLAND

What is a Moomin? You could say it is something like a small white hippo but with a bit more tail, but it really doesn’t get you very far…

Basically, when it comes to Moomins, you’re either a Moomin person or you’re not…

Some months ago, while snooping round one of numerous blog-sites of animator and illustrator Elliot Cowan, I realised that he was a Moomin person. I knew this the moment I came across a haunting little drawing entitled ‘Tove Tribute’…


Then, this week, Elliot posted a blog, More Tove

So, what is a Tove? Well, like Moomins, you either know or you don’t…

There are, of course, toves (of the "slithy" variety) referred to in the poem 'Jabberwocky', but Tove - in connection with Moomins - is Tove Jansson (1914-2001), the Finnish artist and writer who wrote in Swedish and whose name, as she told me in a letter once, was Norwegian: “The first Tove, a princess, is said to have been buried in a sea shell. In Hebrew, ‘Tove’ means ‘good’.”

Any Moomin fan will think both those linguistic associations are appropriate to the woman who created the Finn Family Moomintroll: Moominpapa, Moominmama and their son Moomintroll...


And Moomintroll's friends Snufkin and Sniff, the Snork and the Snork Maiden, the Muskrat, Tooticky, Ninny, Mimble and Little My, assorted Hemulens and Thingumy and Bob...


Not to mention the terrifying Groke and the spooky Hattifatteners --- seen here in 3-D form as presented to me by my good friend and fellow Moomin-fan, Emma!


I first met the Moomins in 1954 in the daily comic strips written and drawn by Tove Jansson, which appeared in the Evening News that my Dad used to bring home from work each night.


Tove’s brother, Lars took over the strips in 1961, in which year, Puffin Books (God bless ‘em!) published the first paperback edition of Tove’s novel, Finn Family Moomintroll translated from the original Swedish. This was followed by, among others, Comet in Moominland, Moominsummer Madness, Moominland Midwinter and Tales from Moominvalley. Eight novels in all, plus various delicious picture books…


What captivated me about the chronicles of Moominland was the combination of fantastical storytelling with exquisite black-and-white illustrations that evoked feelings of warmth, happiness and security, shadowed by a hint of sadness, longing and regret, and tinged with a kind of yearning that is both nostalgic and elegiac.

In Moominvalley, everyone - however curious or odd: an invisible child or a cross-dressing Hemulen - was welcomed and accommodated somewhere in the tall, tower-like Moomin House.

It is tolerant world in which love is unconditionally guaranteed and where every individual is allowed - encouraged - to be themselves without criticism or censure; a world where home is the safe, centered heartbeat of life to which the inhabitants always return but from which they are also free to set off on adventurous quests in search of whatever might lie over this mountain or beyond that sea…


I always wanted to write to Tove as a youngster, but to a child of the ‘50s, Finland might as well have been on the moon; and, indeed, Tove (with her life partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä), lived on a small island called Klovharu, that, in the days before instant global communications, was about as remote as you could wish an island to be.

Although I never wrote that fan-letter, I loyally maintained my love of Moominvalley into adolescence and beyond, by which time I had found her beautiful adult novel about childhood and old age, The Summer Book, which has recently been republished along with a companion volume of stories, The Winter Book, and one of Tove's novels, Fair Play, all of them accompanied by considerable contemporary hoop-la in the form of endorsements from the likes of Esther Freud, Ali Smith and Philip Pullman.

Anyway, twenty years after first falling in love with the Moomins, I finally decided to attempt to make contact with Tove.

In the meantime, I had discovered that she had also illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and, at the time, I was working a book (that has never seen the light of day) about interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s story in the popular media.


So it was that, in 1975 we began a correspondence that ran, on and off, until 1995, during which time, we exchanged letters and cards and Tove sent me several books and a hand-drawn greeting that is now one of my most treasured treasures…


Tove wrote to me at length about Hans Andersen and Lewis Carroll (she had also illustrated The Hunting of the Snark) and talked about how, as a child, she had initially disliked the Alice books:
Reconstructing afterwards is difficult, one is afraid not to be honest, but I believe that I felt Carroll’s anguish and reacted by fright.

Of course, I read Alice again, 20, maybe 30 years later, still without knowing anything about Lewis Carroll’s life - and I was fascinated, enchanted. Most of all by his unbelievable capacity of [sic] changing everyday reality into another underground-reality, more real, overwhelmingly so - one dives into the depths and stays there until the end. It is nightmarish.


As far back as I can remember, I have had nightmares, maybe that was why I couldn’t like Lewis Carroll as a child. In 1966, when I illustrated the Swedish translation of Alice in Wonderland, I read about his life, and understood…
Being at the time a relatively successful broadcaster with a string of BBC radio profiles of children’s writers to my credit, I made several attempts to make a feature about Tove and her world.

She eluded me for years and then, when she finally turned 80 and was far from well, she wrote to say that she had at last reached an age where she could now be excused a process which she had “disliked and feared” as long as she could remember. “Now it’s final,” she said, “and a great relief.” She signed off saying, “Hope you understand. Have a fine winter…”

Of course I understood, but the disappointment was sharp and still smarts.

In our correspondence I had told her - many times over, I imagine - how much and why I loved her work, but, too late I realised that there was still so many other things that I longed to ask her...

Had I managed to find my way to her and Tuulikki Pietilä's little house on Klovharu, I should have liked to ask her thoughts on Tolkien since she had illustrated The Hobbit but, like her drawings for The Snark, it has never been published outside Sweden. And I would have asked about her extraordinary understanding of youth and age; about the sense of longing and loss that runs through her books; and, most of all, about her acutely-felt perceptions of love, parenthood and friendship.

Then, if we had reached that far in the conversation, I might even have had the courage to ask her perceptions on same-sex relationships…

Well, alas, that was not to be, but in her letters she at least revealed some insights into the mysteries of creativity.


So, for Elliot (whose been nagging me for ages to write about Tove) and other Moomin fans, here are just a couple of thoughts from the Mistress of Moominland…
It is so very difficult to know in what degree one’s work has been influenced… How can I know when I portrait [sic] my own anguish, or dreams, or memories - or somebody else’s? There [are] constant influences… a lot of them maybe part of the big addition ending up in, say, writing or drawing…

Whatever they may be, they are possibly drowned in the everlasting stream of impressions where one never knows what is one’s own and what is a gift from outside…

[Photo of Tove by her brother, Per Olof Jansson]