Posts Tagged ‘War’

Many things about being a teacher vex me: longer hours than the public realise, pay, governmental meddling. Paperwork. Ofsted. As a teacher of English though, the lack of imagination in exam boards’ choices for set texts is pretty high on the vexing-list. Really, Of Mice And Men, again? An Inspector Calls as modern drama? Don’t get me wrong, both are great books. But there is an embarrassment when parents point out they read the same book in their generation. As did some grandparents!

So, for me, I avoid the familiar and, if I can, try to teach at least one fresh book a year. Last year, it was The Woman In Black by Susan Hill; this year, Mister Pip. Admittedly, it’s not completely “fresh”: I’d read it when it was nominated for the Man Booker in 2007. But it has stayed with me, the child’s voice of the narrator, the somehow ephemeral Mister Watts. The island.

Mister Pip Is set on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Near Australia. Now, going back to exam text lists, that is a different culture. 1930s America in contrast seems altogether too familiar! Lloyd Jones, literally, takes us to the other side of the world.

2015/01/img_6581-0.png And this island is gorgeous! Do a quick Google image search. You’ll find images like these.


And in the middle of the island – the heart of the island – is a vast ugly scar of a copper mine.

The copper mine and its white owners became the subject of criticism, strikes and eventually rebellion in the 1990s and it is into that conflict which Jones plunges us.


We only see the conflict (and indeed the island) through the prism of Matilda’s eyes, a young girl in a village around which threat of the civil war rages. We only see the conflict as it touches on the villagers’ lives: the embargo which means they run out of fuel for generators; the exodus of whites which leads to the closure of the village school; occasional helicopters and gunfire in the jungle; visits by both the rebels and the redskin troops trying to eliminate them. The conflict circles the village, eddies around it, and becomes increasingly threatening until the truly horrific atrocities committed in the final chapters. All the more brutal for the simplicity and directness of the narration.

The war, however, is but a backdrop to the novel: the heart of this novel is the character of Mister Watt, the last white man on the island who declined his opportunity to leave it. Who re-opened the school after the blockade. Who read Dickens’ Great Expectations to a schoolroom of teenage kids. Who wheels his wife around the village on a cart, whilst wearing a red clown nose. Who may be an heroic or a sympathetic or a pathetic character. Or all three. Who clashes with Dolores, Matilda’s mother, about, well, everything!

There is some criticism of the book on Goodreads that Mr Watts is painted as the great white hero, using the great white novel, to save the souls of the helpless aboriginal children. People are uncomfortable that there’s a colonial arrogance in the portrayal of Mr Watts. Perhaps we are meant to be uncomfortable about that. Perhaps the irony of the conflict between the value of the bible versus Great Expectations, both of which symbolise the white colonial presence is intended. Maybe we as white readers are complicit in the ills which befall the inhabitants of this island.

But those criticisms, in my view, miss the point almost entirely. It’s not the fact the it’s Great Expectations that saves the children, it is the power of story. Including the stories, folk tales and jungle knowledge of the villagers. Mr Watts’ final seven day performance to the rebels of his story which stitches elements of fantasy, his own autobiography. Great Expectations and local stories is the absurd, touching, bright gem.

Mr Watts is no imperial or colonial hero: he is an actor who only succeeds in his various roles because his audience has the capacity and imagination to permit him to succeed.

And Lloyd Jones prepares and preempts the final twist to Mr Watts’ story and character beautifully.

Anyway, to sum up, this is s gorgeous novel about the power of story, the strength of ordinary people to endure. It is about identity, about mothers, about love. And told through the lips of a remarkable narrative voice in Matilda.

Thank goodness it’s found its way onto the GCSE set text list… Until the new exams hit us and exam boards revert back to reliable classics!



Some books are like taking a duvet day in December with a warm fire burning in the corner. And hot chocolate. Even though I don’t like hot chocolate, the idea of hot chocolate. And in the arms of someone who loves you.

These books are comforting. Warming. Safe.

And so it is with Good Omens, the 1990 collaboration between Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.



This is a re-read for me, which is really unusual, but I had fond memories of it, albeit with only a patchy recollection, and Radio 4 are broadcasting an adaptation over the Christmas period starting on 22nd December. I felt that with the end of a long and difficult term at work, I was in need of the duvet day that this book offered. It is perhaps the literary equivalent of a Christmas Mince Pie: warming, spicy and familiar.

Which is an odd way to describe a book which essentially is about the Apocalypse. The biblical, end-of-days, Book-Of-Revelations Apocalypse.

Gaiman and Pratchett do bounce around numerous points of view but essentially each and every character is hugely likeable, even and perhaps particularly the Anti Christ Himself, Spawn of Satan, Adam Young. We are introduced to the novel’s world by Aziraphile and Crowley, an Angel and Demon respectively, who have spent so much time on Earth and around humanity that they have grown to like the place. And each other. And are therefore rather aggrieved to find that the Apocalypse is imminent. Their attempts to thwart that Apocalypse are wonderfully inept.

Also working to thwart the End Of The World is the intriguingly pragmatic – and deliciously named – Anathema Device: witch, Practical Occultist and aura reader. She is armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the eponymous Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter from whom she is descended, which comes in handy when she loses the actual book.

Ironies abound in the novel – most notably the fact that the most appalling acts committed by humanity are born from human rather than demonic imagination – and the Witch Finder Army, which consists of a mere two members, Sergeant Shadwell and Private Newt Pulsifer, are in the employ of both Aziraphale and Crowley. And the With Finder Army teams up with Anathema Device, witch, as well as Madame Tracy, medium and painted Jezebel.

Amongst various cameos we also meet the Gardener’s World team, the Satanic Nuns of the Chattering Order of St Beryl, the Four Horseman Of The Apocalypse – War, Death, Famine and Pollution (who took over from Pestilence once penicillin was discovered).

It is a rollercoaster of a novel, written with massive flair and fun by two fantastic writers who seem to have just had a whale of a time writing it. Some reviewers have grumbled that they only liked the Pratchett bits or the Gaiman sections – often claiming the same episodes for their championed author. I couldn’t unpick them and didn’t really see the need to try. It was all just a riot!

Oddly, the section that I found I had remembered most clearly was the arrival of Adam’s Hellhound, Satanic Hellhound and Devourer of Souls – complete with glowing red eyes – who is reduced by the will, desire and sheer humanity of His Master to a small and scruffy cat-chasing mongrel. And is named Dog.

Roll on Monday!

With regard to the adaptation, the BBC have announced that the cast includes

Colin Morgan (Merlin, The Fall) as Newton Pulsifer, Josie Lawrence (Skins, EastEnders) as Agnes Nutter and Paterson Joseph (Peep Show, Green Wing) as Famine, as well as a host of delightful cameos, from the Gardeners’ Question Time team to Neil and Terry themselves….
Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing, Stardust) and Peter Serafinowicz (Guardians Of The Galaxy, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Shaun Of The Dead) will be taking the central roles as angel and demon, Aziraphale and Crowley, respectively. The star-studded cast will also include Clive Russell (Game Of Thrones, Ripper Street), Julia Deakin (Spaced, Hot Fuzz), Louise Brealey (Sherlock), Simon Jones (Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy), Arsher Ali (Four Lions, Complicit, Beaver Falls), Phil Davis (Silk, Whitechapel, Being Human) and Mark Benton (Waterloo Road, Land Girls) to name but a few.





Just about to start this: good reviews on Goodreads and an interesting cover… All bodes well!


Finding the dialogue in this book the most irksome thing. The characters seem likeable enough, the war scenes are impressively described, some of the narrative is genuinely witty and has been read out loud to my wife. But the dialogue is just jarring. The author doesn’t seem to have an ear for how people actually talk to each other! Perhaps because I’m reading The Shipping News by Annie Proulx at the same time who DOES have a GREAT ear for dialogue ….