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!