Friday, 14 September 2012

A great day - and a fortunate connection to a great book. By Dennis Hamley

This will be a broken-backed blog, I fear.  There's a radical change of subject half-way through, but there's a segue which I hope you think works.

We had a wonderful day out last week.  Like millions of others, we had tried in vain to buy tickets for something - anything - in the Olympics.  Of course, we failed.  When the Games started and tickets were put on sale every morning, we tried again.  But the tickets cost the proverbial arm and leg and we soon realised that we had to get up at 3am to stand a chance.   Yet we still clung on to the idea that we might somehow see the Olympic Park while it was fulfilling its original purpose and also get into at least one of the venues, preferably the main stadium.  And so we tried for what we thought would be just a consolation prize.  We bought tickets for the Paralympics.


And all that mighty heart is lying still

Just a consolation.  And then I remembered something very pleasing.  When I started teaching on the Oxford Creative Writing Diploma, among the students was, of all people, Sir Roger Bannister.  This remarkable, humble man, who doesn't seem to realise just what an iconic figure he is, started this demanding course at the age of eighty and regarded it as one of the great challenges of his life.  During the course, which of course he passed well, he started (but didn't, sadly, finish, though I live in hope) a novel which was a real State of the Nation survey from the Second World War onwards.

His main character, Hector McNeil, comes up to Oxford after the war uninjured but has a bad car accident soon afterwards and is sent to the new paraplegic unit at Stoke Mandeville, set up by the amazing Ludwig Guttmann, who appears as a character in the story, as do some other well-known people of the time.  Roger seems to know everybody and has trenchant opinions about most of them.. He wrote a fascinating portrait of Guttmann.  He turned up in Oxford during the war and worked at the Radcliffe Infirmary.  But he got on everybody's nerves so much with his demands, his perfectionism, his sheer bloodymindedness that the health board of the time tried its best to get rid of him, preferably to do something entirely on his own so that  he couldn't drive other people mad.  They thought up several impractical schemes but in the end sent him off to Stoke Mandeville, then a collection of wooden huts which looked straight out of old black-and-white films about prisoners escaping from Stalagluft 3, with instructions to start a paraplegic unit for returning servicemen.  Then they left him to get on with it, never believing he might actually make it work.

Hector McNeil is sent to Stoke Mandeville after his accident - and Roger writes a scene in which Guttmann looks out of his office window to see Hector in his wheelchair joining in with some kids playing basketball - or netball, possibly more fitting to the period - and putting the ball in the basket unerringly every time  "Sport," Guttmann immediately says to himself and straightaway, with the singlemindedness which had brassed everybody off in Oxford, set about putting it together.

This scene made me think of that marvellous but terrible line in Wilfred Owen's "Disabled" as the listener sits  at the bedside of his ravaged friend and hears through the window how  "Voices of boys rang saddeningly like a hymn"   But, incredibly, because of Dr Guttmann,  the Paralympics mean it needn't be like that any more.  And Roger has skewed my imagination in such a way that I can never stop the feeling that the first inspiration came from the fictitious Hector McNeil.

I felt I had a rather privileged view of Ludwig Guttmann and'; together with the BBC play about him and the build up to the Games, realised that the Paralympics were no substitute: they were the REAL DEAL.  So we bought tickets for the morning athletics session on Thursday September 6th, went down to London the day before (and went to the exhibition in the British Museum, Shakespeare: Staging the World.  Brilliant: see it if you can) and were in our seats two hours before it started, in a virtually empty stadium which seemed to exude anticipation and excitement.

Well, the morning was unforgettable.  We saw Hannah Cockcroft destroy the rest of the field in her wheelchair race heat and Jason Smyth do the same in his 200 metres.  We sat right in front of the partially-sighted triple jump, an amazing event full of shocks and emotion, which spoke volumes about the struggles paralympic athletes have to endure.  I will not easily forget the tall Russian gold medallist who made a mighty leap, possibly his longest, for his first attempt but could not see what we all did: that, despite his guide, he missed the run-up altogether in his approach and had to be led away not even seeing the red flag.  I can still see the baffled desperation in his face.  And yet in the end he won.



A full stadium watches Hannah

There was also the amazing Chinese silver medallist: a real showman who kept his tracksuit bottoms on until just before he started his run-up.  The he flicked them off dramatically and got mighty cheers each time.  And, even as we watched, we had no real idea that three world records were broken in Javelin, discus and shot.  It was just seemed  good that we were present when it happened.  I have to use a word which has been done to death these last weeks.  But it's the only one there is.  What we saw was truly inspiring.  And the happiness in the stadium was so strong you could almost touch it.  We came out of the stadium feeling GOOD, GOOD, GOOD.

A trip up the Orbit and an afternoon's exploration of the rest of the Park, with long conversations with volunteers - as good as everybody said they were - followed.  We came away with a novel feeling: that for once the hype of TV and newspapers was not misplaced.  We really had seen humankind at its best and happiest.  Perhaps this is what's real and not the drab nastiness which is already trying to take its place.  We must hope so.



The canal walk.  They really made a lovely job of this Park

At the closing ceremony, Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Council, told of a five year-old boy who was shown a picture of someone with a black hat with a skull and crossbones, a parrot on his shoulder and one leg and asked what he thought it might be.  His reply was immediate.  "An athlete."

That's my segue. And now for what it segues into.

I was in Blackwell's in Oxford the other day and saw a book there which I knew I had to buy.  Arthur Ransome's Long-lost Study of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Kirsty Nichol Findlay, an academic from New Zealand who is obviously crackers about both of them, and published by the Boydell Press.  How the study was lost and how it was found are both extraordinary stories on their own account.  It wasn't Ransome who did the losing.  He was disillusioned with its progress, his publisher was suddenly very lukewarm and also he was just preparing to go to Russia, partly as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, more pressingly to get away from Ivy, his wife, because they were driving each other mad.  So he cut his losses and left it to Ivy to post.  That was a mistake.  Though going to Russia wasn't.  Because here he found himself both as writer and sailor and here he met Evgenia, Trotsky's secretary, married her and they had long and lovely lives together.

Even though he never finished the book, the draft we have is still a delight.  Ransome felt a great affinity for the older writer.  And we can see the fruits of this in the great Swallows and Amazons series.  The children's imaginative world is fired by Stevenson - and especially Treasure Island.  It's a sort of royal line.  The great storytelling tradition.  Scott (thought I've never really been able to get on with him and besides, the narrative line started long, long before), Stevenson, Ransome.

I often think about tradition in literature.  As writers, we're all in one, whether we like it or not. We're all influenced by other writers.  We can't help it, however original and unique we set out to be.  And when I look at Authors Electric, I see the successors in the Stevenson-Ransome sequence.  I certainly rate Ransome, the summit of my early reading experience, as an influence.  I can't sail, more's the pity (I can barely even swim), but for narrative flow and mastery of the plain style he has been my most important mentor.  But there are two of our number who are strongly in the line of descent.

First, Jan.  A sailor, like Ransome, and, like me, a devourer of his books in childhood.   And a writer who, in Silver and Blood,  has the measure of Stevenson's achievement in Treasure Island.  It's not a sequel, nor just an update.  More a homage, to both its writer and its main character, Long John Silver, who is not just a hard-hearted, treacherous pirate but a person of deep contradictions, huge subtlety, complex, appealing even in the act of evil, a constant riddling  puzzle, almost a rougher version of Hamlet without the self-questioning.  Jan nearly had a fit when I said I thought Moonfleet was the better book.  I'm beginning to think I may have been wrong.

And then there's Julia.  Her Strong Winds trilogy - The Salt-Stained Book, A Ravelled Flag and Ghosting Home are unashamed in showing their debt to Arthur Ransome.  Ransome's characters are constant role models for Julia's.  The imaginative worlds of Ransome and Stevenson are always there, under the surface - but these books are set in harsher times   The crises are not make-believe or advanced forms of play.  They are real, hard, stark and dangerous: they can kill.  I've recently read them and now I'm reading them again to review (for Armadillo this time, not IEBR).

So here are two writers who understand and acknowledge their debts.  I think we all should.  It's good sometimes to pause and ask, not what we will write next, not how we will sell what we've just written, but WHO we are as writers.   How do we fit in to the scheme of things?  Where are our literary antecedents, our influences? Where are the springs and sources of our imagination?  It's a good exercise just to stand and stare for a few moments!

Arthur Ransome: what a man.  Jan, have you ever thought how his life parallels that of our dear old friend Jim Riordan.  Like AR, Jim spent crucial years in Russia which shaped both their lives, like AR he married (in the end) a Russian woman.  Like AR he wrote a lot of unforgettable books for children.  How about doing a comparative literary study together?


It may be extinguished but it won't die.



2 comments:

julia jones said...

Such a vivid and moving account of the paralympics. I loved it, I was there with you in spirit but completely unprepared for the segue! I too have read Ransome on Stevenson - wrote a review for the TLS who never saw fit to run it but now have hopes that it'll see the light in TARS (The Arthur Ransome Society) annual publication. As you say deeply interesting and a salutary reminder what a deeply literary man Ransome was. We all do it, we all learning from each other and from our predecessors and perhaps passing words on to the next generation like the flame in your olympic torch.

Jan Needle said...

Bit late to add a comment, i thought, but then julia did. as the other recipient of your kindly words, let's say thanks, dennis. as to jim - i invited him for a sail once a few years ago, and you'd have thought i was trying to make him drink watneys red barrel! as to the joint study...well, fascinating idea. give us something to chew over when the evenings draw in! just got back from france, so brain is a little deadened for now, though. best to you and kay.