Archive | July, 2012

Curiously, my spot of bother with The Red House

16 Jul

Mark Haddon’s latest, The Red House, seems to be in similar territory to A Spot of Bother. Family and marital dysfunction,  characters with baggage, emotional basket-cases for treatment, the problems of youth – the problems of any age for that matter. We meet Richard and Angela, middle-aged and rather estranged brother and sister ‘reunited’ by their mother’s death. The afflent Doctor Richard suggests the two families have a week’s rural cottage holiday to re-bond. Angela’s lacklustre, jobless hubby Dominic plus children – horny, 17year-old jock Alex and God-squad, sexually-confused sister Daisy, 16, and 8 year old smart-but-brittle Benjy  – are all reluctant conscripts to the family fun. Louisa, Richard’s new trophy-wife and her sulky, spoiled precocious daughter Melissa, make up the party .

Throw into the mix the 17year bereavement that has been going on in Angela’s head for a stillborn child and Richard’s guilt for anything that moves making him want to put things right by throwing money and people together, hoping it sort out his past and future – and you have a recipe for the reader to watch the hurly-burly done and wait to see who’s lost and won.

The answer is no one, really. Possibly the Red House itself with its stoic acceptance of those who have owned or rented the place. Or perhaps Karen, the dead child who has grown up in Angela’s head and whose maturing voice serves as a commentary on the folly of those who live. Whatever the case Haddon’s cleverness left me confused. The narrative lurched from one pair of characters to another as the family dynamic veered this way and that – Richard v Alex, a machismo match; Daisy and Louisa, teenage neuroses squared; Louisa and Angela, mothers vying for the I’m more vulnerable that you badge. The partnerships shifted througout and Benjy was not to be left out – he crucially discovers that Daddy Dominic is having an affair with a yummy mummy. Whenever the narrative flags, which is rare with Haddon, the partners change on the floor and new life is breathed into the dance.

The ‘chapters’ are delineated by the days of the holiday. The stylistic innovation after the breakthrough ‘voice’ of Curious Incident is the surreal departures where memories, dreams, the part-articulated conscience of each character and voices of the undead of the house and Angela’s daughter coalesce into a chorus which, supposedly, underpins the rather more obvious operation of plot. I wanted to shout – just get on with it at the author. I’m still not sure if I have misread the whole thing but I yearned for the simplicity of one or two main characters so I could follow a central thread and not have to basket-weave several changing strands at the same time – and all under water. The focus of MH’s first two novels have been so strongly on one central character that an intensity of experience – and humour – has resulted. Not to mention a reader-sympathy that built page on page.

Now Mark Haddon remains an author whose prose crackles along compulsively. In this case, however, his plot and characters didn’t. I cared less about them at the end than I did at the beginning. Alex is me at 17 – all testosterone and faux Oedipal angst; highly unpleasant as I now recall. Melissa is just an unpleasant bitch; Daisy not much better, less of a bully but too needy by half. Benjy a wimp and all four adults variously unattractive. The house is symbolic and, clearly, the Welsh borders a brooding delight for the towny crew, with the hapless Richard succumbing to exposure when he injudiciously tries to out-outdoor pursuit Alex.

There remains enough of those observational nail-hits to make readers of all ages recognise themselves, a past or present situation or the lives of others. Several smiles and some laughs too. Haddon has a sure touch in these categories but those who inhabit his Red House on this holiday found me uncaring of what would happen to them after their journey home.

I liked them all rather less having known them for a few short hours.

Here Comes the Sun….

16 Jul

As Paul Simon neared the end of a briliant set in Hyde Park last night, the sun broke through, yet again. The great man paused  to hum a couple of the Beatle bars before  sax and trumpet heralded the further joy of You can call me Al..We had been served a feast of Graceland nostalgia with Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo reprising their choral, rhythmic, trumpeting, percussive, virtuoso roles of 35years earlier to aid the diminutive septuagenarian New Yorker in his quest to rekindle the making and first performances of that classic and controversial album. Soweto, once again breathed over London.

A lovely day of gentle indulgence enjoying the sights, sounds and smells of the Hyde Park stages and bars had prefaced the main event. The country smiles and haunting violin-and-voice of Alison Krauss had only just left the Park when Simon stepped up a shade before 7.30. He was clearly mindful of the Springsteen-McCartney curfew ‘silencing’ of the night before. He wasn’t going to chance it. He toured through the post Garfunkel stuff as hors d’oeuvres before the bizarrely comic choreography of LBM gave a gawky poignance to the beautiful a cappella  Homeless. This signalled an hour of Graceland made fresh by an extraordinary mix of instruments and voices from across the globe.

Around 10pm some people were leaving the pitch but it wasn’t all over. The adoring thousands of mixed, age, race, nationality, gender – you name it – were to be taken back in encore to the early days when we were just poor boys with our stories seldom told and the words of our prophets were written on subway walls. Just on 10.15 – and before the curfew spoiltsports – Paul Simon departed the main stage and we were replete. With Frank Sinatra’s version of Mrs Robinson serenading our huddled, happy exit, we made for Green Park tube.

As we shambled happily along I reflected. I hadn’t heard a swear word all day. Thousands upon thousands of fans had queued up for entry, security searches, burgers, shabby mobile toilets, beer, public transport; pleases and thank-yous had abounded. As we thronged down Piccadilly, spilling into the slow traffic, smiles were the order of the day; plenty of police but no officiousness.  could have been forgiven the thought that this society was civilised, at one with itself, mindful and caring of others; slow to irritation, quick to applaud; generous of spirit warmed by companionship.

It had been a week of blame and shabbiness. John Terry could never win or lose. He’s become the fodder of witty middle class journalists who would hardly be caught mouthing f…… black c… because it would say an awful lot more about them than it does about JT. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like the man but I didn’t grow up in his back yard.

The G4S security shortfall was bound to become the government’s fault wasn’t it? Why not accept that this private firm messed things up and get on with it. Our media wants so desperately to make any hiccough in London 2012 a tip-of-an-iceberg story that the saliva of journos dribbling through the pages is revoltingly palpable.

Do I want to trawl through what has been caught in the week’s media net? Not really. I couldn’t find anything this morning about what went on in Hyde Park yesterday – just the lingering downbeat story of Bruce and Sir Paul ending their Saturday  gig in silence. As usual, but mostly unreported,  Brucie had been at his brilliant best for the three hours before lights out. I didn’t expect to read about Paul Simon’s uneventful Sunday tour de force but it had been great, whatever the papers said or didn’t say.

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