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Sunday, January 19, 2020

Vale Christopher Tolkien!

From Wikipedia. Fair use

Christopher Tolkien, son of the wonderful J.R.R Tolkien, is no more. True, he did get to the decent age of 95, and he was working till 2017, but it’s always sad to lose someone so special.

You may or may not know it, but without Christopher, we might have only The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. Christopher’s second wife, Baillie, edited The Father Christmas Letters after Tolkien’s death. There are a number of other small books for younger readers, published posthumously.

But there is far more. There are now several volumes of “The History Of Middle-Earth.” (I have read them!) There are individual novels centred around Middle-Earth in earlier ages. There are his translations of mediaeval poems such as Gawain And The Green Knight, Pearl and Sir Orfeo. There is his translation of Beowulf, complete with notes.

Guess who edited all this stuff? 

But the first book published after Tolkien’s death in 1973 was The Silmarillion, a story of Middle-Earth from the beginning. I have a first edition in hardcover, which I bought at Sunflower Bookshop, my local bookstore, on the recommendation of the delightful Brian Ormsby, who, with his wife Noreen, opened a shop that is still there, though with a new name. I admit it took me a very long time to get past Chapter 1, but a friend in England persuaded me to read on, and she was right. It did become more readable after that chapter. 

Christopher Tolkien edited and finished the book with the help of a young student from Canada, a gentleman called Guy Gavriel Kay... Yes, that Guy Gavriel Kay, the future author of some wonderful historical/alternative universe fantasy novels. But at that stage, he was a student. He must have been pretty special even then to have been chosen to help with that project. Christopher spent the rest of his life working on his father’s unpublished works, willingly, so he would never have picked up just any student assistant for something so important to him. 

We really owe Christopher a lot, when you consider how tangled and confusing  the manuscripts were. There were bits and pieces, stacks of them handwritten and in small bits of paper, in no special order. He re-did the maps to make them clearer for readers, got everything in order and sometimes, as with The Silmarillion, finished what was unfinished. 

It’s not just that we now have everything but Tolkien’s shopping lists, but that we have his world building, which is phenomenal. We have bits that were left out of LOTR. (Did you know that  Tolkien was thinking of killing off Eowyn and Aragorn never marrying? So glad he changed his mind!) We know how his world began and so can make more sense of the major novels. We even know that at one time Sauron was just a sidekick to the Dark Lord Morgoth, and looked more or less human, that Morgoth ended up as a Dark Lord because he was not a team player(first chapter when the gods sing the world into being and he decides to sing his own tunes), and that Galadriel was once a very naughty girl! And we know all that because of Christopher Tolkien. 

What, I wonder, was it like for Christopher Tolkien to spend his entire life focussing on his father’s written work? He did it, though, and must have been passionate about it. He was not happy when they started making the films and went so far as to disown his son Simon for appearing as an extra in one of them. I believe they reconciled eventually, and I was happy to hear about it. But it does show how important that novel was to him. 

I’m glad also to hear that, though he couldn’t stop the films from being made, he did manage to get royalties back from New Line. Fair enough! They made a lot of money out of it.

Now there are plans for a TV series prequel to LOTR. None of it would have happened if not for J.R.R Tolkien’s third son.

Vale, Christopher! And thank you. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Of A Newspaper Article That Made Me See Red!

Here is a link to a newspaper article that made me angry.

It involved some school in Queensland which had had this new and original, brilliant idea to get kids reading - they were going to do twenty minutes a day of reading for pleasure! Well, not exactly reading stuff that you might want to read. You’re not allowed to read non fiction or graphic novels, only novels, presumably of the kind the school approves. The article showed a picture of a smiling young lady reading in front of a bay of books that might be in a school library, but looks to me like a good quality classroom library. Anyway, it doesn’t matter, as the picture was not from the school in the article, not even a school in the same state. What does this suggest to you? 

I sent a letter to the paper, below, as so far the paper has not published it. They still might, but I suspect not. Too late now.  

As a retired teacher librarian and a children’s writer, I read with interest the article about the Queensland school’s “bold plan to get teenagers reading”.  I wonder if the school has a library, run by a professional librarian, and suspect it doesn’t(the photo with the article is not from this school) or it wouldn’t be the Principal trying to find ways to get kids reading, it would be the librarian. And the librarian would have come up with something better than “twenty minutes a day reading for pleasure and it’s not allowed to be non fiction”, something many students love, or graphic novels, something else they enjoy and which is not just another name for “comic book”. They are often complex and even difficult reading. I can understand why they would ban class texts from the daily read, but not these.  As someone who ran a school library for many years, I know what they borrowed and what invariably ended up on the overdue lists,  and which books were falling apart from reading. A library professional would have advised the Principal better than this. And it’s nothing new, sorry! Schools here have been doing it for years, often with books from the library, before many schools started closing them down to save money and because “they’re doing it all on the Internet now, aren’t they?”

I suppose the daily read is better than nothing and I hope it is working, but a truly bold plan would have been to spend some money on a new library, if they don’t have one, and a qualified, enthusiastic professional to run it. 

If they are going to publish one of my letters, I often get a call from the letters editor asking me to “declare my interest”, but not this time. In any case, remembering this, I made sure I did declare my interest in the very first sentence, so I can only assume they aren’t going to print it. 

So, let’s discuss it here. I suspect the school in the article doesn’t have a proper library. I’d be very surprised if they do! Maybe one of those small collections of books with an integration aide running it half a lunchtime a day. But not a librarian, or they would have asked her/him for advice. 

 That means that someone without any qualifications or passion for reading has come up with something that sounds good to them, and this same someone has definite Opinions on what is acceptable. How is it reading for pleasure if it doesn’t give everyone a chance to read something they enjoy?

 I have no doubt the well meaning principal discussed it at a meeting, either with staff in general or with a school committee. It does take time to organise your timetable to fit in even this minimal program, so I understand why they aren’t doing it right away. But they have given themselves about the same amount of time it took to re-arrange the entire school timetable for the massive literacy program my school does(it works out as 200 minutes a week, or four periods), which involves actual teaching, not just reading(the kids do get about fifteen minutes a period), so why not do more? Why not, in fact, get a library going, with a professional who can make sure the kids have somewhere to go at lunchtime and help them choose books just right for them? They can still have the twenty minute thing, and the kids won’t have to bring books from home(what if their home is one that doesn’t have books?), and can bring books they will enjoy. Doing it this way is simply lazy.  

And then you call the newspapers to brag about it! 

It also irritates me that the journalist thinks this is new and worth writing about. I guess she has to do something for the education column every week and pounces on anything that sounds vaguely interesting, but she really should have done her homework. Plenty of schools are already doing this, including one where a friend of mine used to work, years ago. He even told me that he and some of his students were amused to find themselves all reading the same new Harry Potter book. That should tell you how long it has been going. 

When I think about how much I did as a teacher librarian, with my tiny budget, how many kids I looked after and took to writers’ festivals and organised voting for favourite books in the Inky Awards and the YABBAs and gave the chance to interview their favourite authors on this blog, I can’t help being furious, both with this principal and with the newspaper that thought this story was news. 

Screaming right now... AAARGH! 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Just Been To See.. Little Women!

 So, today I went into the city to meet a friend and see the latest version of the film Little Women. There have been several versions now, including a silent movie, the most recent before now in 1994, in which Winona Ryder played the role of Jo. Like this version, it was directed by a woman, Gillian Armstrong. In the 1949 version, Amy was played by Elizabeth Taylor! 

It’s a story about six women, four of them in their teens, one their mother and a middle aged servant, Hannah,  living in Massachusetts during the American Civil War while Dad is off in the fighting. It’s easy to see why the last two directors have been female. 

So, what was this one like? Like the others, it covers the first two stories in the quartet; the first novel ended with the return of the father, Mr March, and the recovery of the third sister, Beth, from scarlet fever. If they had stuck to that, the roles could have been played by younger actresses, but when you have them growing into young adults, with two of them married, you really need older actresses who can play younger ones.

And this one was very different from the others, in that it flitted back and forth in flashbacks and flash forwards. In fact, it started with writer Jo already living in New York, visiting a publisher to sell one of her lurid short stories. She had two scenes with that publisher, that one and a much later one where he accepts her semi autobiographical novel and she negotiates her royalties. 

As a writer, I found myself nodding away in those scenes. The first scene had him cutting a scene she liked before accepting the story, telling her that after that war, people wanted to be entertained, not lectured to(the cut scene moralised). The second scene had her confident enough to demand a higher rate for her royalties than he was offering. He is not offering an advance unless it’s buying out her rights with a flat fee. She is a lot tougher than in their first scene, refusing the sale of her rights, and wanting a higher rate of royalties if she isn’t getting an advance. She knows her book is good - and so does he, after his young family members loved the manuscript. 

Louisa May Alcott apparently wasn’t keen to write Little Women, but was talked into it. Everyone was very pleasantly surprised when the book became a hit, and she wrote three more in the series. I’ve read Books 1 and 3. It was, of course, semi-autobiographical, though Louisa was older than Jo during the war - I believe she worked as a nurse. She also wrote the sort of lurid Gothic stories that were so popular in those days, just as Jo does. I do have a copy of a collection of her short stories somewhere around the house, must find it! 

Little Women is not exciting stuff. It’s gentle domestic stuff and gets a bit moralistic at times, as everyone Learns A Valuable Lesson, but it’s very readable, and the films are good because they have the excuse to show beautiful landscapes. And these were all filmed in Massachusetts, the setting of the book, even the scenes in Paris! 

If you are interested, Geraldine Brooks wrote a novel, March,  which tells the story from the viewpoint of Mr March, while he is at war. This Mr March is basically Mr Alcott, Louisa’s father, who made the family go vegan and even the fruit they ate pretty much had to have signed a suicide note(Kerry Greenwood’s description of her heroine Corinna Chapman’s parents). In the new film, Aunt March(Meryl Streep) comments that her brother never succeeded in making any money because he wasted it all teaching freedmen’s sons - not in the book, but true of Mr Alcott, who had radical theories of education and got into trouble trying to integrate his black and white students. That happens in March

I enjoyed Little Women very much, well worth sparing a couple of hours in the cinema to see. 

Monday, January 13, 2020

January 13 - Happy Birthday, Bart!

Today is the birthday of my friend Bart Rutherford, who, incidentally, had an ancestor mentioned in my book Crime Time: Australians Behaving Badly, not as a criminal but as the guy who helped get Mad Dan Morgan get caught, so I thought I’d celebrate it with this post, my first for 2020. 

Plenty of things happened “On This Day” but I’ve stuck to the positive ones, and birthdays of people I’ve heard of. I did look at some of the saints, etc. whose day this is, but none of them were of interest to me, except a nun called the Blessed Veronica, who apparently tried to teach herself to read, but was told by the Virgin not to waste time on this reading jazz... Hmm...

Anyway,  enjoy! 

                                                                 On This Day 

1822 – The design of the Greek flag is adopted by the First National Assembly at Epidaurus. I have had a number of a Greek friends and workmates over the years, and even learned a few words of the national anthem, so - a very positive event!

1898 – Émile Zola's(famous French novelist) open letter J'accuse…! is published, exposing the Dreyfus affair. In case you aren’t familiar with it, it was a major antisemitic injustice perpetrated against a Jewish soldier, Alfred Dreyfus, who was unjustly accused of treasonously handing some French papers to the Germans. The guy who actually did do it, someone called Esterhazy, was eventually caught, but acquitted after a very brief trial, and poor Dreyfus was still stuck on Devil’s Island. Zola’s letter got him into trouble as there was a huge uproar in France over it - there was a lot of antisemitism around. He had to flee to England for a year. Writing that letter might even have cost him his life, as the guy who blocked his chimney in Paris, causing him to die of carbon monoxide poisoning, admitted to deliberate murder on his deathbed. Thanks to Zola, Dreyfus got a pardon, then eventually was restored to the army. You can read it all in Wikipedia and there have been some films, including a 1958 one with Jose Ferrer as Dreyfus, which you can watch online. 

1910 – The very first public radio broadcast! It was a live performance of the operas Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

1993 –Space Shuttle Endeavour heads for space for the third time, launched from the Kennedy Space Center.


1893 – Roy Cazaly, Australian footballer and coach (d. 1963). Okay, not connected with anything remotely artistic or literary, but this footy player was the subject of a song, Up There, Cazaly!

1893 – Clark Ashton Smith, American poet, sculptor, painter, and horror writer (d. 1961). I know him best as a horror writer. 

1926 – Michael Bond, English soldier and author, created the hugely popular children’s book series about Paddington Bear (d. 2017). They have sold millions of copies. 

1933 - Ron Goulart, American SF author. Among other things, he ghost wrote the TekWar series under William Shatner’s name. I read the first one. 

1977 - Orlando Bloom - Actor, Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit. He was a gorgeous elf, a Legolas I could believe in. I remember his first scene, when he drifted down from his horse at Rivendell like a leaf... Legolas was a lot less pleasant in the film of The Hobbit (he wasn’t in the novel), but he did get to see a picture of his future best friend, “Ma wee lad Gimli.”

1990 – Liam Hemsworth, Australian actor. He was in The Hunger Games as Gale, the guy who didn’t get Katniss, though half the fans thought he should have. As someone who read the books, I think the author made the right decision. 

Happy birthday, Bart!