Rime’s an odd concept. I don’t mean that crust of ice that clings to cold metal, but the poetic technique that sings the last syllable of some preceding word, often at a line end; absurd, round the bend.

It brings us up sharp against the subsequent word, or down heavyily on it, logically without warning, but if the rhythm’s right, the poem’s like a song and to not get the rime, at that point precisely in the tune would be somehow wrong. Rimes can be weak or strong. Sometimes, when we hit them, unintentionally as we speak, they sound out of time. Some poets put them in the middle of a line, which is fine. Others, I’m thinking Wilfred Owen I suppose, does something not quite the norm – echoing consonant but not vowel – but no-one cries foul! (or thinks him a fool or it bad form). Riming two syllables at a time often sounds silly, weakens the line, willy nilly.

It comes down to the tune, more often than not, and whether it will scan, but there’s one poem springs to mind, where it does not.

I’m thinking of Robert Frost’s Fire and Ice where the rhyme scheme is rigid, but instead of singing like music, it turns each line to come down like a mechanism, a verbal steam hammer rather than the lyric of a song. Instead of marking a musical beat, it makes the line-end an anvil on which the sense rings true, and is beaten out on the two rimes in it: the words of the title, echoed, pile driven home: ire, ice. The fact of the actual rime of ‘Fire’ being ‘ire’ adds a little something that must surely have been fortuitous!

Find it here.

I wrote a few days ago about failures, of one sort and another, quoting William Faulkner. If you’d like to experience Me attempting to be a (failed) poet…here are a couple of collections where you can:

A successful poet, you might think, is not one that gets published, but one that nails the poem.

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That William Faulkner quote popped up recently in a promotional e-mail…the one about novelists being failed short story writers; short story writers being failed poets….made me wonder what sort of failure poets are?

We have to imagine what we’re told, but observe what we see.

Taika Waititi’s 2016 film Hunt for the Wilderpeople was based on Barry Crump’s 1986 novel Wild Pork and Watercress. Set in the New Zealand bush both versions celebrate a strand of the Kiwi psyche, and several hundred square miles of its wilderness.

I encountered the film first, courtesy of my daughter who was living in Auckland at the time. Knowing my interest in how adaptations can change stories, it wasn’t long before the novel turned up, tracked down by my wife!

There are many ways in which, and many reasons why film makers change the stories they adapt. Technical issues, economic pressures, and the intent to put the story to the service of their own political or social agendas are the common ones. Out of the few dozen adaptations I have perused though, this one is perhaps the most unusual. The cast of the film is expanded both in numbers and in depth – the only cut is from two dogs to one, and I’m not sure whether that would be for technical or economic reasons! There are so many pigs, deer, possums (plus one Kiwi bird) and other animals killed, dismembered, cooked and eaten in the book, that I was tempted to do a headcount and list them, as was done with Peckinpah’s blood-fest Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, but really, the time required would have been above and beyond the call of this blog!

The film is nowhere near so bloodthirsty, though the two boars that are killed are killed suitably bloodily!

What the film adds are conversations and the characters to have them. Conversations from the book are expanded, new characters are added, existing characters are changed, usually to exaggerate their idiosyncrasies. Incidents are moved around, merged, or separated out. Even the two main characters, Uncle Hec and Ricky, are subtly changed, the thirteen year old part Maori delinquent seeming more competent, the tight-lipped old man seeming, perhaps less so in the book than in the film. Of course that might be because it is Ricky who tells the book’s story (apart from a chapter at the end, in which another character reflects upon the events, and speculates about the ultimate fate of the two runaways who have for a second time vanished into the bush together). An omniscient third person camera lens shows the film’s version.

Crump was hugely popular in his lifetime, and this novel was seen as his masterpiece. He too vanished into the bush from time to time and Uncle Hec might be seen as a proxy for him, both as a bushman, and as a sociopath. Writing a preface to the novel one of Crump’s sons refers to Crump as having a ‘sidekick ….. not a woman but a nine year old Maori boy’, and dates the encounter to around the time the book was first published. He refers also, to his own difficulties in relating to the eccentric Crump: ‘I never lived with my father’. ‘They were very relaxed and comfortable with each other, which is more than I can say for the old man and me;’

In fact if Hec is the proxy for Crump that anti-social streak must have been strong, and the fact that the author was described as a ‘great storyteller’ doesn’t really gainsay it. Telling stories, writing them, can be a way of distancing yourself from people as much as and perhaps more so than, one of connecting with them.

Crump’s story sees boy and uncle flee into the bush to avoid the boy being sent back into the Welfare system, and for nineteen months they evade detection and capture despite a developing hue and cry. The incidents of the story are mainly about the hardship of the trail, the repetitive killing of the game they live on, and the avoiding, where possible, of any human contact.  There’s an awareness to Crump’s book though, that is irrelevant to the film, and in the fact that, as Ricky’s narrative makes clear, survival is based, not only on the animals they hunt, but also on the supplies they find, left for emergencies in the various park huts that they visit – and also, to some extent, to the gear they steal from other ‘trampers’. Crump knew what it was to live in the bush, and presumably knew its limitations. The film doesn’t need to make the point, though it does show us the two fugitives finding, and using supplies in such huts. In fact, apart from the long period of Hec’s recuperation from a broken foot they sleep in huts probably as often as they camp out in both film and novel.

Crump’s style is described as ‘direct’ and ‘simple’, and even compared to Hemingway’s, as being ‘minimalist’. There’s a flatness to the story telling, that shows in descriptions of making a billy of tea being no less exciting than experiencing an earthquake, and vice versa. The pace doesn’t vary, the tension never seems to rise or to be resolved. Perhaps this is Crump attempting to capture the boy’s voice, or perhaps it reflects the way he saw the incidents that fill the book, and maybe how he experienced those which, presumably filled his own periods of bush-time. It’s almost as if a depressive were telling the story, certainly a detached narrator.

There was no sense, for me of any rising crescendo, no story arc, though there is a climax of sorts, just before the two fugitives decide to hand themselves in. I have often found that the ‘middles’ of stories can be more malleable, their component parts more easily switched around, than could the beginnings or endings, that it is only detail within those middles that needs to be sequenced carefully. In this story that is, I believe, especially true. The order in which the various creatures are slaughtered, the rains experienced, even that earthquake, do not seem to contribute to the development of an idea, or an outcome. That isn’t to say that there is no idea, but to find it, you have to look at the conversations between Hec and Ricky, and the reflections upon them that pass through the boy’s mind. My first reflection after finishing the book was that these conversations had been few, and relatively short, but re-reading showed that to be a false impression. In fact, Hec and Ricky talk quite often, and sometimes for a more than a page. It’s the limited depth of their conversations, perhaps, that gives the impression  of brevity and infrequency.

The incidents into which these conversations are embedded, I found as tedious, and for similar reasons, as watching somebody else’s holiday movies. If you’re into stalking and shooting and skinning and gutting and cooking on an open fire, I can imagine the story might entertain you with that for longer than it did me, but it’s interesting that Waititi chose to dump most of that stuff, having paid a lip service to it. One of the most remarkably ‘alive’ sequences of the book, comes at the end, when the sheep-station manager who has befriended the pair (and talked them into giving themselves up), describes his first encounters with them. He is graphic on their condition, which contrasts so powerfully with the story Ricky has told, that one begins to wonder if Crump had deliberately flattened that narrative voice, deliberately blunted its perception of what was really happening. It’s a technique that I could see working well in a short story, but over nearly two hundred pages of a novel, it must be a high risk strategy.

The sheep station manager, Robby Barton’s chapter is another first person narrative, and in a recognisably different voice. Here’s a sample of what he tells us about the two ‘bushmen’ after a year in the wilderness.

 

‘They were both dressed in rags tied around them with strips of torn cloth and flax……the boy’s trouser-leg had frayed off above the knee and                                 the leg was covered with old bruises and scratches……And they stank. Badly. Both of them.’

 

The film offers nothing like this description of the protagonists. They are never that ragged, that dirty, that unkempt. They are never desperate in the way that the book shows them to have been. Barton’s character and its viewpoint are not in the film.

There are two major elements the film brings to the story that are clearly not in the novel. Most obvious is the chase and shoot out sequence near the end, in which armoured vehicles and soldiers with automatic weapons pursue the fugitives, with Ricky driving a stolen car, across some sand flats. It’s a Keystone cops sort of chase, a spoof shoot out, and there’s nothing remotely like it in the novel.

The other addition is less extreme, but becomes a fundamental thread of the film’s story. This is the introduction of two characters, that will represent the pursuing authorities throughout the film. They add a humour that I didn’t find anywhere in the book. One is a world weary and cynical, though kindly, policeman, and the other is a Child Welfare Officer. They make a comic duo, with him constantly undermining, and commenting on her. She becomes more manic as the story progresses, making a comic rather than a sinister ‘baddy’, and the focus of the story, because of this duo’s repeated appearance, shifts from the two fugitives to the wider world from which they try to escape. In fact the whole film turns more towards the pursuers than the novel ever does, giving them more story time, more dialogue, and more actions – all of which have a comic tinge, lacking in the book. As a cameo role, this is most notable with the character Psycho Sam who replaces the book’s more mundane Quiet Brian. The names, and the change of names nicely encapsulates the difference between book and film, and implies the reasons for the changes.

Another addition is Kahu, who conflates separate elements of the book. She rides, with Ricky hanging on, to the house where she and her father are staying, and where there is a phone that Ricky can use to call in help for a sick man. Ricky spends the night with them, while Hec remains at a park hut, looking after the invalid. In the book’s equivalent Ricky goes only as far as the hillside above a house to yell for help, and refuses the offer to come down. In the book, the overnight stay becomes a prolonged one, much later in the story, with the sheep station manager. In the book it is he who rides the horse. Film makers extract small details that they presumably like, and recombine them in quite different ways to the original.

It seems to me that in this adaptation, the director has taken a popular story and recognised that it could not be merely transcribed to the screen. Yet he has not brought any new agenda to it, and the changes have not been for technical or economic reasons. Adding characters, and armoured vehicles would cost money, not save it, and there would have been no technical difficulty in showing the deaths and processing of dozens of animals. It would, however, have been simply boring. A way had to be found to make the story interesting: to make the events in the book into a story, because the story in the book is carried, between the events, in the relatively few exchanges between Hec and Ricky, and in the thoughts that Ricky has about their relationship.

Cinema audiences (and readers) are interested in the situations of their characters, but also in how characters react to those situations, and to each other. It is those reactions, and conversations that the film has focussed on, cutting out the detail of the events into which the book has embedded them. Crump wrote a book called Bastards I have met, and is cited by the anonymous commentator of the second preface to Wild Pork and Watercress as believing that ‘bastards’ outnumbered ‘heroes’ by 15,000 to 1. The simplistic division of people into these two stereotypes (perhaps among others) seems to underlie the story, and though the film goes a little deeper, none of the characters are more than caricatures, and even Ricky and Hec do not develop much beyond gaining a grudging respect, and liking for each other.

There are many stories in which characters are pitted against a wilderness, but few, in my experience where they are not trying to survive in order to reconnect with other people. In this story, in both versions, the protagonists’ intent is always to limit, and if possible avoid human contact, even with those whom they believe are trying to help them. Even their own relationship seems tainted with this attitude. Curiously, this element reminded me of Frank Herbert’s Soul Catcher, which I wrote about recently, for in that wilderness novel one of the features of the relationship between the boy and his Indian captor, is that the Indian distrusts the language connection between both him and the boy, and between the boy and the natural world. He is forever rebuking the child for speaking, rather than silently observing and listening. Even where the point is not being explicitly made, it would seem, language and how we use it is an issue of the stories we tell (even when we are showing them). I’m tempted to say that Taika Waititi’s story is better than the one Crump told, but that would be unfair. Crump’s told story gains from the richness of its readers’ imaginations, but Waititi’s shown one has to depend on what we see and hear. If you’d like to read more about adaptation, Take Two, how adaptation changes stories by Mike Smith is available here

Went to Keswick yesterday afternoon. Saw Great Expectations.  Tilted Wig & Malvern Theatre know their Dickens, and how to do it.

Dickens knew how to make stiff-upper lipped moustachioed and bearded men in starched collars and cumberbunds cry. He made them weep bucketloads, over Little Nell, over Oliver Twist, over relatives who died too young, wives who were the wrong woman, lovers who went unrecognised for too long. He knew how to make young women faint in their crinolines and tight corsets. He even set fire to his stage once, but not like this.

It’s only on for three days more – the play – if you can get there, clear high water, risk tides, don’t wait for time. Meet Magwitch on the marshes. No-one does melodrama like Dickens does. There’s even a reference, like a whiff of smoke, to the Blacking Factory – no guys, it wasn’t missed!

Nothing to fault, but one thing to say, don’t go for a quiet relaxing afternoon – go ‘cos you’re up for going through a wringer, and will be wrung out, exhausted, drained, the way Dickens wanted you to be. Bravo. Encore.

The lighting was spot on (no floods over the marshes). The costumes were clever. The switches, of character and set, swift and neat. The climbing-frame of a set boxed the players in, and opened the story out. Narrative, some say, kills an acted story dead, but don’t believe it, stories a plenty were told in this, and as it should have been. Loved it. Dickens loved a play. He would have loved this, I think.

And in Hong Kong, here is Angus Gallagher tackling with brio It’s Only Time That Parts Us, by Brindley Hallam Dennis

Here’s another BHD story in that rather cool digital mag .Cent

49 stories,flash fictions and monologues by BHD

There’s a chorus to an unpublished autobiographical poem I wrote a few years back:

Burton on Trent, Burton on Trent

A job at the brewery might just pay the rent

The town wore the smell of the maltings like scent

And the shunters were calling in Burton on Trent

 

 

Ah! A beer in Vetters Bar in Heidelberg, just off the Haupt Strasse at the Cathedral end. Bliss.

And it’s true that two of my strongest memories of the town are of hearing the cries of shunters in the darkness, along with the clank of coupling chains, and then the whistles of steam engines, and the steady chuff of them pulling away, and of smelling the awful stench of the breweries in the days of the nineteen fifties when it still pervaded the town.

Perhaps that’s why I fled to the mountain air of the Lake District. Perhaps it’s why I was in my twenties before I could face even the idea of drinking beer. But whatever you drank, the pub was a noticeable feature of the town. There was, seemingly, one at every corner. The Barley Mow, The Staffordshire Knot, The Punch Bowl, The Queen’s Head. For a time, in my early teens, I even collected pub names, much the way that others collected the numbers of steam trains, or the registrations of motor cars. A difference of course, was that you have to travel yourself, to find pub names. They won’t come past you.

The Pink and Lily, The Drunken Duck, Tan Hill, The Kitling Romper, Alice’s Pie Shop, The Cornish Chough. Pub names from all over the UK stick in the mind.

Lost among them is a distinction that for several generations now, we’ve not been likely to make – but it’s still there, in the architecture, in the location – the distinction between a pub (technically short for Public House) and an Inn. Inns, as even the Christmas story makes plain, are places where people expected to stay, and where food was served. Public Houses were where people went to drink. Travellers frequent the former, locals the latter. But of course, there will be people who live in the vicinity of inns, for whom they will be, the local, and people no doubt fetch up at pubs, especially country ones, and expect to be put up for the night. Cornelius Cardew does just that in Isabel Colegate’s The Shooting Party.

The quality of locals, of either category, is that they were places where people spent time in the company of others. At the inn end of the spectrum, the stranger is to be expected. At the other, conversation is likely to stop, if only temporarily, when the stranger walks in – even if not through batwing doors.

Not surprising then that these are places where stories are set, where stories are made, and where stories are told. Chaucer’s England had them. Fielding had them – the Inn at Upton being the most famous, I venture – Dickens had them, and not only the London pub, but those of his travellers, not least the Pickwickians. Hardy had them. Joyce’s Dubliners frequented them, and so did his Ulysses. You’ll find them in A.E.Coppard, scattered among his two hundred or so published stories.

In The Wife of Ted Wickham, the couple run a pub. In The Black Dog, the story takes place mostly in the eponymous pub. Monty Barlass, of The Truant Hart, is introduced as ‘a farmer and publican.’ The famous Dusky Ruth in the story named after her is working in a pub, and there are many others. Nearly always rural, they isolate characters from the world, yet bring them into contact with each other, acting as a sort Prospero’s Island.

Sir Arthur Quiller Couch’s Captain Knot roams the high seas over many years, but its events are recalled, and re-told in the Welcome Home Tavern at the head of Quay Street.’ More famously, Tolkien’s The Green Dragon has been re-created in real life, though in Peter Jackson’s faux Hobbiton, rather than at a movie-set Bywater (the beer, though, as you might know, is excellent).

In The Green Dragon

George Moore’s mould breaking novel, Esther Waters has a pub as its setting and for similar reasons: the bringing together of characters. There is also the possibility that writers like Moore would have been unlikely to encounter people of his heroine’s class elsewhere. The working class of domestic service and their lives would have been invisible to him by comparison to the landlord and his wife (or husband). TV soaps from Eastenders to Coronation Street would be, possibly literally, unimaginable without their pubs.

        The ground before the bar in an English pub is open ground for truth and lies to meet and mingle. So long as the tales flow as freely as the beer, all is running properly. Sedition and plotting has to take place in corners and alcoves and around little tables over which the conspirators can hunch, like those in a story from Arthur Morrison’s Tales of Mean Streets.

 

 

‘He was a long-bankrupt tradesman, with invisible resources and no occupation but this, and no known lodging but the Red Cow snuggery. There he remained all day, “holding the fort” as he put it; with his nose, a fiery signal of possession, never two feet from the rim of his pot;’    -from The Red Cow Group

 

But even the absence of a pub, can give it an insistent presence, as in V.S.Pritchett’s short story, Many Are Disappointed, in which a group of cyclists, long overdue for a beer and having passed the only pub on the road, mistake a private house, and have to settle for tea!

 

‘There isn’t a bar’, she said. ‘This isn’t a public-house. They call it the Tavern, but it isn’t a tavern by rights.’

 

It’s difficult to imagine a place where such a wide variety of people could meet with such a wide variety of freedoms to speak, as in the English pub, and for all the drinking culture that the English have been infamous for over four centuries, I can’t help thinking that it is the freedom of speech allowed, at least until things become threatening, that has been the more important characteristic.

Yet pubs and inns have changed. They have had to. A story emanating from a pub called The Barnaby Rudge (from the days when it was called something else) told of a local farmer who used to turn out at closing time so drunk that they would put him in his cart and un-tether the horse to take him home, which it would! One night, an impractical joker, unharnessed the horse, put the shafts the cart through a gate nearby, and re-harnessed the horse on the other side. That night the farmer took the gate, gate-posts and a few yards of fence on each side, away with down the road, until it became too heavy for the horse to pull!

The first time I visited Carlisle, in the late nineteen seventies, the pubs had only a few years before come out of public ownership. The State Management Scheme, brought in to discourage drunkenness, rather than to promote public houses, had left them run down, under invested, old fashioned and pretty miserable places (especially if you were sober). If you asked for food, they would look at you with suspicion verging on hostility.

Nowadays, drunken driving being somewhat more of a menace than horse-riven fencing, pubs need to sell something other than alcoholic drinks. Perhaps when we get the self driving car we’ll revert. The pub has become more like the inn, and the inn more like the restaurant. Even a local pub must draw in customers – diners – from far afield. No country pub can sustain a living selling a couple of pints two or three nights a week to those who live within walking, or horse cart distance. Somebody told me a few years ago that to make a ‘community pub’ viable it would need to sell a thousand pints of beer a night. I imagined the state the villagers would have to drink themselves into to achieve that, without the help of a busy restaurant. We just wanted somewhere for the locals to have a quiet drink, he told me.

At our tables set for four, we’re less likely to talk to strangers, or even neighbours, than we were at the crowded bar, or squeezed around those small round tables. Yet, there remains something of Fielding’s rough and tumble inn, of Chaucer’s and Dickens’. There remains the people, strangers and locals, with their stories to make, and tell, and pass on. At a pub beneath the flight path into Manchester airport I sat by a window table and listened to a man boasting that he had lived next door to a famous criminal exile (who would, years later come home to die). The locals clustered around him, and plied him with drink. Even if it was bullshit, and who would know, it was entertainment, and worth his pay.

I’ve used them in several short stories, and in each story, I’ve had a particular pub in mind as I wrote. They offer both familiarity, and anonymity; a sort of equality in which not only friends, but strangers can speak. They can of course, still say too much. In the prize-winning story (published ‘through gritted teeth’ by the prize-givers, I like to recall), The Ballad of Matty Lonin, the opening incident – a McGuffin perhaps – takes place in a pub, and was based on something that actually happened in a Cumbrian pub, though it didn’t end in quite the same way!

 

 


Went to Keswick’s Theatre By The Lake last night to see Hymn To Love, a showcase for Edith Piaf’s songs, and an imagined glimpse into her life. Set in a hotel where she is rehearsing for a gig, Piaf is haunted by guilt over the death of her Boxer boyfriend Marcel Cerdan. She talks and sings, linking the songs to the remembered episodes of her life. It’s a gripping piece, played by Elizabeth Mansfield as Piaf. Patrick Bridgman is the pianist to whom she pours out her heart. What’s clever about this show is the way he allows her to speak, nudges her to continue, and shows that he has heard, but never pushes the audience to a particular response, or makes a judgement of his own on what we are hearing.

Disappointing was the fact that all the songs save one – and yes, that one, to translate which would end up, no doubt, as Faux Frank Sinatra – have been translated (albeit cleverly) into English. Translating songs is like translating poems I suspect: the meaning can approximated, but the music is often entirely lost – the music in the words, I mean. Disheartening, was to hear in the after-show discussion, that an earlier production had soon revealed the unwillingness/inability of an English audience to stand an evening of songs in French. Pity, I thought, that they chose to change the songs rather than the audience.  Last night’s audience, whatever their ‘identity’ seemed to share the disappointment, even those of us not fluent in French (and English).

Hymn To Love is on for another week or two, and then moves to York, and will be in London in the summer. Well worth seeing.

 

There is something I find immensely satisfying about watching an adaptation after having read the original story – and something that is more satisfying when the two are tackled in that order. For one thing that we might find an adaptation to be is a window onto someone else’s ‘reading’ of that original story.

Of course, it might be also, or instead, an appropriation, or even a misappropriation of the story for purposes of which the original author might not have been aware, and in which he or she would have made no investment. My interest in such adaptations is not solely due to irritation at their lack of fidelity to the original. The film version of, for example, No Country For Old Men, appears to be so faithful that it can be of no use whatsoever, except for those unable to read, or too lazy to imagine the images that McCarthy’s words evoke – and, of course, for the money it takes!

Beyond concerns over fidelity is the fascination with how a re-telling of apparently similar events, or a re-imaging of the events that apparently similar characters might take part in, can lead to an entirely new story.

It was stumbling upon such adaptations that led me, over many years, to write the essays that make up the book Take Two, How Adaptation Changes Stories, which you can find on Amazon, here.