Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Book That Refused To Be Written

When my Granny was a little child, most houses in the countryside did not have running water; but there was a pump near her garden gate. From time to time a farmer or traveler would politely knock on the door, and ask if he might have a bucket of water for his horse; a request which was always granted. 

Imagine her surprise when one morning a man knocked at the door and said "Excuse me: could I possibly have a bucket of water for my elephant?"

So far as I know, this story is true. My Grandmother died in her 90s when I was in college; so the story took place, I suppose, 120 years ago. If I tell it to my nephew and he lives to be 80 then at least one person at the beginning of the twenty-second century will know that there were elephants in Cornwall at the end of the nineteenth.

I don't know where my Grandmother was living: I have a mental picture of the house we used to visit when she was a very old lady (which also had a pump, long since dried up) but that was her married home. I have an image of a man walking along a country path with an elephant on a lead: but for all I know there was a fleet of caravans making up a small travelling circus. And naturally I don't really know what he said; or whether Granny or her mother opened the door.

Once upon a time, a man knocked on a country cottage in England and a asked if he could water his elephant....

Events from the past only come down to us if they turn into stories. 

There was a small bookcase at the back of Miss Griffiths classroom, near the gerbils, on the left of the cloak room and the toilets. We were allowed to pick a book to read during quiet periods. Most of the books were much too babyish for me. But there was a creased up paperback edition of Islands in the Sky and a hardback copy of the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; one of those library editions in a white dust jacket. I read a Scandal in Bohemia, which I didn't really understand and The Red Headed League, which I liked. I liked the crazy idea of a man being hired to copy out the encyclopedia long-hand; I liked the bit where Watson has to test Holmes' memorization of all the street names in London. I was incredibly proud that I spotted that the encyclopedia was a ruse to get the clerk out of his shop for a few hours before Watson did, though not, of course, before Sherlock Holmes. 

A whole floor of the public library was given over to children's books; with a whole silent reference section for people wanting to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica by hand. Most of the books were very babyish; but there was an Older Readers section which contained stuff that I liked. That was where I found the Tripods and the unbearably boring first volume of Cities in Flight. (I have since read the other four volumes. They are unbearably boring.) If you wanted Tarzan or John Carter, which I did, desperately, you had to go downstairs to Adult Fiction.  

There was a Sherlock Holmes book in the Older Readers section; it was a "best of" anthology with the Speckled Band and the Copper Beaches and an except from Study in Scarlet and some background material about how the Victorians had gone crazy for it when it was first published in the Strand magazine in 1887. (My Granny was alive in 1887. She remembered the fireworks for Queen Victoria's Jubilee. She stayed up way past her bed time and fell asleep in a the back of a cart.) The description of Watson setting up home with his evidently mad flat mate I read over and over. I liked the funny hat and the slippers more than I liked the actual mysteries.

So: the first and only true reading of A Scandal in Bohemia the one which took place in the pre-fab at Church Hill School one rainy lunchtime in 1975. That is the reading I try to hold on to: the reading which informs all the others. That is why "spoilers" are such a terrible sin. They make it impossible to ever read a books for the first time. 

But I am sure I knew who Sherlock Holmes was long before I found Miss Griffiths' book. We all know — from Basil Brush and Sesame Street and the joke about painting the door yellow (*) — that a person trying to solve mysteries would be expected to wear a deerstalker, have a curly pipe, a magnifying glass and say "elementary" a lot. By 1975 Holmes had long since escaped from the printed page; Conan-Doyle's text was preceded by my cultural idea of him. 

(I wonder how long it will be until Holmes is only a man who says "elementary" a lot, in the same way that pirates are only men who say "Arrr!")

So perhaps I came in far too late and the the first and only true reading of A Scandal in Bohemia took place 81 years earlier. To find out who Holmes really is and what the story really means we have to imagine that we are Victorian gentlemen, hunched under the gas lights, reading our new edition of the Strand Magazine. 

It isn't quite true to say that that first reading is unrecoverable. I bet we could find letters and diary entries in which people mention in passing that they have been reading a spiffing new story about a clever chap who catches criminals by the power of induction. Possibly someone is writing a PhD on that very subject as we speak. 

But that would be an exercise of scholarship and imagination, just as much as a clinging to the Church Hill School version is an exercise in memoir and nostalgia. Try to bring the text closer and you end up pushing it much father away. 


Two and half years ago I seriously considered writing a book about the Amazing Spider-Man and Jesus Christ. 

My idea was to alternate chapters about my favorite comic book and with chapters about the four Gospels so Amazing Spider-Man #3, "Spider-Man Meets Doctor Octopus the Strangest Foe Of All Time" might have been juxtaposed with Mark 3, "Christ healeth the withered hand, and many other infirmities and rebuketh the unclean spirit". 

It would have suited my sense of the ridiculous and my liking for what might be called "conceptual blogging". It is quite funny to write about Tom Baker's first Doctor Who story on the night everyone is expecting me to talk about Jodie Whitaker. At least, I think it is. So it would have been quite funny to follow an essay on the central text of western civilization with one the New Testament.  

I had an idea that the proposition that "fans treat comic books like religious texts" was one that was worth exploring; and what better way to do that than by treating a religious text as if it was a comic book. Is theology really just a matter of sorting out continuity errors? Could preaching usefully be regarded as Gospel fan-fic? Is St John basically doing a soft reboot of St Matthew?"

My first clear memories of Sunday School go back to when I was about eight years old: approximately the same time as my earliest memories of reading comic. So I thought that maybe "How did the eight year old Andrew understand comic books?" and "How did the eight year old Andrew understand the Bible?" might turn out to be related questions. 

The experiment is worth trying. 

Pull the Old Book down from the shelf. 

Falling apart copy belonging to my grandfather. 

Pretty much fallen apart copy belonging to my grandmother, with the words of Jesus printed in red. (Someone, presumably my other grandfather, has redacted the word "piss" from Isaiah 36:12.) 

Pocket size N.I.V from my Christian Union phase. 

Huge illustrated Good News Bible inscribed by one D. Wynne of the First New Barnet chapter of the Boys Brigade " from when I was confirmed. 

Tiny little New Testament, also with a Boys Brigade inscription ("for Bible class attendance during the 1976-1977 session" apparently.) 

Another N.I.V with a purple cover and the words "study Bible" rather hopefully penciled on the inside front cover. 

A New English Bible, inscribed by one of my Sunday School teachers "a present for learning the books of the Bible by heart". (Which I can still do, give or take a minor prophet.)

Open up Mark's Gospel, which is the probably the oldest and certainly the shortest, and pretend I am reading it for the first time:


Mike Taylor said...

That is why "spoilers" are such a terrible sin. They make it impossible to ever read a books for the first time.

I think this is dead on. I was having this very conversation with my middle son on Wednesday night, with respect to films. He made the quite correct point that we watch films that we love many times, and enjoy them just as much — maybe more — on the second and subsequent viewings. So why worry about spoilers? My position was that the first time of seeing a film, or reading a book, is different from all the others: not necessarily, better, but different. And I don't want to miss out on that different experience.

A case in point: as a family, we went to see Infinity War not knowing anything about how it finished. As a result we walked out of the cinema at the end absolutely stunned. That doesn't mean we didn't also love the film when we've seen it again since: but that specific experience was unique to an unspoilered first viewing.

Mike Taylor said...

… from Basil Brush and Sesame Street and the joke about painting the door yellow (*)

I assume there was meant to be a footnote to go with that asterisk?

Andrew Rilstone said...

My apologies I split a stupidly long essay into theee and the footnote is still at the bottom of part 3.

Andrew Rilstone said...

(*) Lemon entry, my dear Watson,

Andrew Rilstone said...

I hope that was worth waiting for,

Mike Taylor said...

Not too bad, actually :-)

SK said...

My position was that the first time of seeing a film, or reading a book, is different from all the others: not necessarily, better, but different. And I don't want to miss out on that different experience.

Is the experience the important bit, though? Does the experience really matter at all?

Imagine something of which you could truthfully say (and it seems a plausible enough thing): 'the first time I read it I enjoyed it; but then as I read it more and more I came to see that it actually was not very good at all'.

Assuming your subsequent (more informed) judgements are correct (and they seem more likely to be, especially if your first experience was s a child before developing proper critical faculties, and with less experience to draw on), doesn't that just mean that the first experience was mistaken?

Jumping (perhaps too far, perhaps not) is it possible that, in fact, first experiences may be actively misleading? If the first experience is enjoyable might that not make you think that a book was good when in fact it was not? Or conversely, might a bad first reading make you think a book which is in fact good and rewarding of subsequent analysis, is rubbish?

After all, with people, we always say not to judge on first impressions. The person who appears charming the first time you meet them may well turn out to be a cad, and 'spoilers' might have given you an indication of their true character before you were swept away by mere 'experience'. There are Wickhams in the world, and Darcies.

So ideally — just as you would not judge a book by its cover — you ought not to judge it by the first reading. To judge truly, you must never read anything for the first time; or at the very least, you must never read anything without being thoroughly spoilt.

Mike Taylor said...

Well, SK, your position makes sense if your goal in interacting with art is to come to a correct judgement of its value. But as I hope I conveyed in my first comment, I'm more interesting in what experience I have of it. As a child, I enjoyed The Magic Faraway Tree, which I would now consider literature. But that judgement doesn't invalidate the enjoyment I experienced as a child.

And regarding Infinity War, I am very glad to have two different experiences: that of seeing the ending "cold", and subsequently that of watching the film while knowing what is coming.