PAW 9 – 1066 And All That (1424) by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman

1066 And All That by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman; Penguin Paperback (1424); 1960 edition; cover by John Reynolds

1066 And All That by W C Sellar and R J Yeatman; Penguin Paperback (1424); 1960 edition; cover by John Reynolds

1066 And All That is another true comedy classic. The title itself has entered into the public consciousness although the authors are fairly obscure. In the tradition of Three Men in a Boat and Diary of a Nobody, it was written by fairly amateur humourists, and like that last book, portions of this book were published in the canceled and still lamented Punch magazine.

Most of the references in the book that the humour depends on will be obscure to anyone who doesn’t have much knowledge of British history, although it also pays off for people who have forgotten more than they remembered. In fact, this is exactly the stance that the writers have taken, and it is billed as “All the history you can remember” on the back cover. It makes historical and literary references to “The Venomous Bead (the writer of the Rosary)”, the “Boer Woer”, and “Henry the IV: A Split King” (who abdicated his throne for Henry IV Part II)”, as well as making schoolboy evaluations as to whether a king was a Good King or a Bad King, and when Britain was and was not “Top Nation”. At the end of each chapter there are Test Papers with such questions as “4a. What makes you think that Henry the VIII had VIII wives? Was it worth it?” and “12. What Price Glory?”

It’s a book to dip in and out of, rather than read right the way through in one sitting since I don’t think I have ever come across a book that had as many jokes per page as this one, and you can return to it again and again. I keep it on the shelf with my history books and turn to it when I need a pick-me-up.


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PAW 8 – Robinson (2157) by Muriel Spark

Robinson by Muriel Spark; Penguin Paperback 2157; 1964 edition

Robinson by Muriel Spark; Penguin Paperback 2157; 1964 edition

Muriel Spark constantly surprises me. Few authors could be less comfortable in a genre mold, I think. In fact, I would say that Spark is openly, consciously, defying genre classification in this book, going so far as to say that I believe it’s the reason she wrote it. It’s a glorious mixture of thwarted story forms. It’s a survival story where no one is in danger of dying. It’s a mystery where, it turns out, there is nothing to solve. It’s a romance where no one falls in love. It’s a revenge tale in which a wrong isn’t righted. It’s a religious allegory with no moral.

But Robinson is all the more compelling for that. Even though the story starts with a situation that very few of us can relate to – being stranded on a nearly deserted island – this small but dense weave of unrealised plot payoffs makes the story feel that much more realistic. You get the sense that this is a truer tale than most because most of the time our lives are like a collection of themes with little or no resolution. And Spark is one of those great Catholic authors – like Chesterton, Greene, or Waugh – who can out-doubt the staunchest agnostic, showing that doubt and faith are not exclusive states. And as is undoubtedly the nature of such a story, it is unclear at the end exactly what the whole tale is about, but somehow you know you have been enlarged and fulfilled by it, at least for the time you were reading it.

I don’t want to give too much away about this book. It’s definitely worth tracking down and reading through, as all of Spark’s books, I have found, are. I’m glad that there are many more on the Penguin Classics list, I am excitedly looking forward to reviewing more of them.


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PAW 7 – The Midwich Cuckoos (1440) by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham; Penguin Paperback (1440); 1963 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham; Penguin Paperback (1440); 1963 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The Midwich Cuckoos is an interesting novel which has become something of a genre-crossover, or even a genre migrant, or possibly even a straight-up mash up.

I think that John Wyndham intended to write a Science-Fiction book, although it’s always dangerous to assume what type of book a writer was trying to write. Often they just don’t know. But whereas Wyndham’s other books have generally fallen into the realms of SF (such as The Day of the Triffids), The Midwich Cuckoos has drifted into horror. Although The Midwich Cuckoos is no less horrific or thrilling than his other books, this is certainly due to the two movies that were adapted from this book, both of them titled The Village of the Damned, one by Wolf Rilla in 1960 and one by John Carpenter in 1995.

And, as SF, the book has very few hard elements, so I think it is best understood in the horror genre, where the fear that is being expressed here is what happens when your children aren’t your own — when your authority as a parent is ignored, and the enforcement of society is ineffectual. A very real and conscious anxiety in 1957, which is when the book was written. Those two suppositions are given literal interpretation in this book: first the women in a village are all instantaneously impregnated by a mysterious phenomenon and they give birth to about sixty children all with silver hair and yellow eyes. It is implied that these are alien-human hybrid beings, all of whom can communicate with each other telepathically, and who start having their own aims, beliefs, and ideas that they will not share with anyone else.

As shocking a concept as this is, the resolution of the book is even more shocking, in my opinion. It’s certainly not how I would have ended a story with the same premise. I leave it to you to decide if it satisfies or not.


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PAW 6 – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1154) by B. Traven

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven; Penguin Paperback (1154); 1956 edition; cover by John Minton

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre by B. Traven; Penguin Paperback (1154); 1956 edition; cover by John Minton

If The Treasure of the Sierra Madre hasn’t enriched your life then either you’re reading it wrong, or you’re living your life wrong.

The author, B. Traven, is one of the literary world’s genuine enigmas, a mystery far more impenetrable than even Shakespeare’s authorship (Answer: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare). Although there are many theories, no one knew who B. Traven was, and even the way that his literary agent dealt with his publisher and, later, Hollywood seem like something from a spy novel. He is undoubtedly the core inspiration for the fictional novelist V. M. Straka in J. J. Abrams and Doug Dourst’s novel S.

The book itself is a wonderful and realistic morality play. It is written well with no pretension at all, completely accessible and straightforward. It is transportive and such a perfect sense of Mexico in the 1930s is portrayed that you never doubt for a second the writer’s authority. The characters are likewise realised and rendered, with Dobbs being at once the most complex and relatable. It is rare to see a character describe so full and complete an arc as Dobbs does in this book. Every step he takes, every reaction he displays, are so rational when read that B. Traven’s mastery not just of prose but morality and realism are slowly shown throughout the course of the story. And at its conclusion we are shown the darkness in our own souls as we read this story and are left bewildered afterwards in wondering how we would have avoided that same fate if put in that same position.

I came to the book initially through the 1948 movie starring Humphrey Bogart, which was directed by John Houston for which he won two Oscars, along with his father Walter who won Best Supporting Actor. (It lost out to Best Picture to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.) Both are worth buying and watching/reading again, and again, and again.


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PAW 5 – The Napoleon of Notting Hill (550) by G. K. Chesterton

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 550

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 550; 1946 edition

People now consider The Napoleon of Notting Hill to be a Speculative Fiction book, and it can certainly be read as such. Chesterton would definitely have thought of it as “a fantasy”. It was the first novel that Chesterton wrote to be published and he describes the moment he took the idea to his publisher as necessitating a few stiff drinks at The Cheshire Cheese near Fleet Street in London before marched over to his publisher, John Lane’s office, threw open the door and said “this is the book I want to write and this is how I’m going to write it”. The publisher liked the idea and signed him to a contract on the spot. Then Chesterton had to go away and write the thing.

Coincidentally, the story takes place “eighty years after the present date”, making it 1984. Orwell, it can be safely assumed, did not enjoy Chesterton very much and took ocassional swipes at him in his own fiction, even though Orwell did get his start writing for G. K.’s Weekly. It deals first with a very charismatic politician named Auberon Quin who thinks it would be a lot of fun to become the king of Notting Hill and cede from the nation. He manages to do this but then a second man, Adam Wayne, takes the matter much more seriously. When a highway is scheduled to be built through the suburb, he marshals a military force to prevent it. In the ensuing battle Notting Hill apparently lies in ruins and two figures speak to each other from the mist, discussing love, laughter, and seriousness — these are revealed to be the two main characters who are finally reconciled. This is he core conflict of the book, seriousness and humour, summed up in a conversation between the two protagonists halfway through the book:

Auberon turned on Wayne with violence.

“What the devil is all this? What am I saying? What are you saying? Have you hypnotized me? Curse your uncanny blue eyes! Let me go. Give me back my sense of humour. Give it me back. Give it me back, I say!”

“I solemnly assure you,” said Wayne, uneasily, with a gesture, as if feeling all over himself, “that I haven’t got it.”

The King fell back in his chair, and went into a roar of Rabelaisian laughter.

“I don’t think you have,” he cried.

It’s an odd little book, an odd little pebble that has nonetheless created significant ripples. C S Lewis must have been fond of it since he borrowed its ending for Book 2 of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra, which ends in two abstract figures having a conversation. He also took the title for a Narnia book from one of this book’s chapter title: The Last Battle. Neil Gaiman also has said that he got the idea for his first novel Neverwhere, in which a hidden London is described, from this book and even quotes this one at the beginning of his.


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