Growing Down With Harry: Why The Harry Potter Books Became a Moral Sinkhole

Snape’s Worst Memory, from the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix film

In Harry Potter’s third year at Hogwarts, his nasty, bullying Potions master, Severus Snape, tells him openly for the first time how much he hated Harry’s dead father, James: ‘He, too, was exceedingly arrogant… Strutting around the place with his friends and admirers… the resemblance between you is uncanny.’ This comes as no surprise to Harry, who has been told long ago that Snape has it in for him because of his dislike of James. However, even though he knows virtually nothing about his father, he’s certain that Snape is recounting his own twisted version of events: ‘My dad didn’t strut. And nor do I.’ This recurrent narrative throughout the first four Harry Potter books makes the revelation in the fifth into one of the most unforgettable chapters in the series. Through a magical device called a Pensieve, Harry witnesses an uncensored version of Snape’s ‘worst memory’ – a version that, unlike Snape’s earlier accusations, he can’t write off as hopelessly biased, because it plays like a videotape. Snape’s worst memory shows a fifteen-year-old Snape being tormented by James in an exceptionally cold and vicious manner. James taunts an unarmed Snape, hexes him, then hangs him upside down (to add insult to injury, using what we later find out is a spell Snape invented), flashing his underwear to watching crowds; finally, he threatens to strip him. James isn’t motivated by anything much in attacking Snape in this way; he does it because he’s bored, because he can, and because he wants to show off to some admiring girls, including Harry’s mother, Lily.

Harry is deeply disturbed by witnessing Snape’s worst memory. It never occurs to him to try and make excuses for his father. Indeed, his instant reaction is: ‘he knew how it felt to be humiliated in the middle of a circle of onlookers, knew exactly how Snape had felt as his father had taunted him, and that judging from what he had just seen, his father had been every bit as arrogant as Snape had always told him.’ Harry seeks an explanation for what he’s seen from his father’s two best friends, Remus and Sirius. Neither understands Harry’s shock and horror. Indeed, they are happy to explain away James’s actions by claiming that this was a relationship of equal enemies, not of bully/victim, and that James had right on his side: ‘James and Snape hated each other from the moment they set eyes on each other… Snape was just this little oddball who was up to his eyes in the Dark Arts, and James… always hated the Dark Arts.’ They suggest that James was being ‘an idiot’ because he was ‘only fifteen’ (ignoring Harry’s fair retort, ‘I’m fifteen!’). Nevertheless, Harry continues to feel uneasy; this question about his father’s character is never resolved, even though the narrative itself quickly forgets it.

Snape’s worst memory is the only significant moment in the Harry Potter series where the bully is allowed to be a character whom we know to be on the Good side, and the victim a character who (at the time) was on the Bad side, which is another reason why it is so memorable. Throughout the rest of the books, only Bad characters are called out for their bullying behaviour. If you’re Good, you can get away with anything. For brevity, I’ll focus on one extreme example; the Weasley twins, Fred and George, brothers of Harry’s best friend Ron. The Twins are portrayed through the books as Good characters, culminating in Fred’s heroic death in book seven; they are also sadistic, cruel and at time, borderline psychopathic.

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The Twins are a lot nicer in the movies than they are in the books!

The Twins do too many horrible things for me to list them all, but they are consistently depicted picking on those younger and smaller than themselves, usually, but not always, members of their own family. The most persistent victim is Ron. The Twins start with childhood ‘pranks’ (they give him an Acid Pop that burns a hole through his tongue, and try to get him to make an Unbreakable Vow that would probably have killed him) and continue into adolescence; they destroy his confidence when he becomes part of the Gryffindor Quidditch team so thoroughly that he can’t play properly until they’ve left the school. Their position as classic bullies who always ‘punch down’ is summed up by a conversation in book six, where Ron admits anxiously that ‘I’d better pass my [Apparition] test first time… Fred and George did.’ His older brother Charlie failed, but ‘Charlie’s bigger than me… so Fred and George didn’t go on about it much.’ While their younger sister Ginny learns to stand up for herself later in the series, they target her when she’s still a shy, nervous eleven-year-old: in book two, they think it’s funny that she’s scared of Slytherin’s monster stalking the castle (after the monster has already almost killed a fellow student who sits next to her in one of her classes) so they ‘[take] it in turns to cover themselves in fur or boils and jump out at her from behind statues’ and only stop when their older brother tells them to knock it off because Ginny is having nightmares.

Reflecting on Snape’s worst memory, Harry compares his father’s behaviour to that of the Twins, and thinks that he ‘could not imagine Fred and George dangling someone upside-down for the fun of it.’ This positions the Twins as harmless pranksters and James as an exceptional bully. However, even though the intention of this paragraph is clearly meant to underline how bad James’s behaviour is, Rowling can’t quite stop there; Harry goes on to think, ‘not unless [the Twins] really loathed them… perhaps Malfoy, or somebody who really deserved it…’ Here, in a nutshell, is the moral sinkhole at the heart of the Harry Potter series. We know, by book five, that the Twins do things that are this bad all the time. As it happens, they bully people that Harry knows and likes, so even this doesn’t quite work out, but Harry admits here that this behaviour would be OK as long as it’s directed towards somebody who really deserved it. Unfortunately, in the world of Harry Potter, you ‘deserve it’ if you are Bad, and you are Bad because you deserve it. The Twins are Good, so they can’t be bullies, no matter how they treat other people.

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The films somewhat inexplicably save any remembered interactions between young!Snape and young!Lily for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II.

As an aside: I’ve been thinking about why Snape’s worst memory shows James as so cruel, when it sits so uneasily with the rest of the text, and when Rowling clearly isn’t interested in exploring the long-term ramifications of Harry’s discovery. By book six, James is Good again. The answer, I think, is that Rowling is, as ever, focused on plotting. Snape’s worst memory exists in the text as a clue, as something we can go back to when we discover, in book seven, that Snape Loved Lily. It’s not really meant to upturn everything Harry knows about his father. Snape’s worst memory is Snape’s worst memory because he argued with Lily and lost her friendship, not because of James’s bullying. Of course, what we also have to take away is that, for Snape, being humiliated, hexed and stripped in front of the school wasn’t the worst of his memories, because it simply happened too often.

Better essayists than me have pointed out that the morality of Harry Potter is shot, so I won’t dwell on that issue here, but I’d like to discuss one of the reasons why. Rowling has frequently said that she wanted the series to ‘grow up with Harry’ and get darker as it went along. The series’ morality becomes much more simplistic in books six and seven, so it certainly doesn’t become more morally serious (which for me, is really the only relevant meaning of ‘growing up with the reader’). However, I’d agree that, from books three/four onwards, the series takes violence, suffering and death more seriously as Harry encounters it head-on. Unfortunately, this means that re-reading the early books can feel very tonally jarring, because the cartoon, schoolboy violence that Harry encounters in books one and two suddenly feels much more serious than it was meant to be. (The Acid Pop incident that I mentioned above, for example, is framed as a joke in book two, and in the context of that book, doesn’t feel so horrific.) The problem is compounded by the fact that characters like Fred and George – who are fun and even caring in book one – fail to ‘grow up’ with the series, and so seem increasingly sinister by the later books, because they’re doing things that might make sense in a certain kind of children’s literature, but now the stakes are raised, they look like villains. Snape’s worst memory is a pivot on which the series could have turned; instead, Rowling doubled down on her original plan for the last two books, cut off all the interesting offshoots that were sprouting from book five, and delivered a miserably bad ending.

Random Late Summer Non-Fiction Reading

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Perhaps I was always going to have unfair expectations of Gabrielle Moss’s Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of 80s and 90s Teen Fiction, which is a broad survey of a lot of the US middle grade and YA fiction published in these two decades. I don’t research children’s lit or YA at the moment (though watch this space for a super secret exciting project coming soon!!*), but I’ve read enough on the topic to know that there’s scholarly work on this that Moss doesn’t engage with. However, having said that, I think I would have been happy enough with a shallow analysis of publishing trends and genre history if Moss had really seemed to know and love the books that she’s writing about. And while there are exceptions – she’s clearly a big Christopher Pike fan and gives a welcome shout-out to The Midnight Club, also my favourite Pike – she doesn’t really manage to convey her enthusiasm. Here, Moss isn’t well served by the explosion of blogs and online articles that so intelligently and hilariously dissect 80s and 90s mass market paperbacks aimed at this age group. Why would you read Moss on Lurlene McDaniel when you could read Somewhere Between YA Lit and Death? Or on Sweet Valley High when we have 1bruce1 AND Double Love? On the Baby-Sitters’ Club when we have 3_foot_6’s recaps on bsc_snark? On Point Horror when we have Teenage Scream? Or on this era at all when we have Frankie Thomas’s YA of Yore series in The Paris Review? So as I say, a bit unfair – Moss clearly did not have the page space to be able to go into the same amount of depth – but I guess I think this would have worked better if it had focused on a handful of Moss’s own favourite series rather than trying to cover everything (which it can’t, and doesn’t, anyway). The book is worth it for the hilarious full-colour reproductions of 1980s and 1990s book covers alone, however. And for any other 90s kids, I’m sorry not sorry if I just sent you down a rabbit hole with any of those links.

*maybe temper your expectations, unless you are really into 90s/early 00s middle grade US SF

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Recent Cambridge graduates Chelsea Kwakye and Ọrẹ Ogunbiyi wrote Taking Up Space: The Black Girl’s Manifesto for Change for other black girls like them trying to navigate the still very white spaces of the British university system. However, it’s an important read for anyone who is involved in education in any way, shape or form. The topics covered – institutional racism, white curriculums, mental health, dating – are not obviously different from a number of other books on race and gender in modern Britain, but Kwakye and Ogunbiyi’s specific perspectives as young black women are hugely valuable. Having taught black students at both Oxford and Cambridge, this book made me further reflect on my own practice, sometimes uncomfortably, especially when Kwakye and Ogunbiyi discuss how they felt at times that less was expected of them because they are black women. At a conscious level, I know that I don’t expect less of black female students, but, especially in the one-to-one and one-to-two supervision/tutorial contexts of Cambridge and Oxford, we as supervisors/tutors are constantly making judgment calls about how to interact with students. Do you aggressively press a counter-argument in the hope that this will inspire the student to defend their own case, or should you talk through other interpretations more collaboratively so you don’t make them feel attacked? For obvious reasons, I’ll tread more carefully if I feel that students, of whatever race or gender, seem under-confident or uncertain, but as I’ve reflected in the past, it’s hard to judge whether these snap judgments are influenced by unconscious bias. On the other hand, Kwakye and Ogunbiyi point out that authority figures and peers can go too far the other way, assuming that they are invulnerable because they are ‘strong black women’, and not allowing them space to care for their own wellbeing. This opposing trope reminds the reader that improving black women’s experience of education is a continuous and challenging process of attaining balance in the context of a racist society.

‘The Sequel is So Much Darker’: Why Series Don’t Always Get Darker – and Why That’s A Good Thing

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Sequels to science fiction and fantasy books, films and TV series are often described as ‘darker’ than their immediate predecessor, a trend that I first noticed with Harry Potter. Retrospectives on the book series tend to assume that Voldemort’s return in the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, shifted the series towards a ‘darker’, ‘more mature’, tone; retrospectives on the film series point the finger at the third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, where director Alfonso Cuaron deliberately created a Hogwarts with a very different feel to Chris Columbus’s version (at the time, most newspapers ran with ‘Harry Potter hits puberty‘, praising Cuaron’s revamp). Nevertheless, this trend started earlier; every Harry Potter film was described as darker than the one before it. A number of professional reviewers praised the second film, Chamber of Secrets for being ‘better and darker than its predecessor’. Entertainment Weekly wrote that the film ‘deepen[ed] the darker, more frightening atmosphere for audiences. This is as it should be: Harry’s story is supposed to get darker’, referring to J.K. Rowling’s stated intention that the series should ‘grow up with its readers’. However, even after the tonal shift when Voldemort regains a physical body in Goblet of Fire, reviewers kept praising the films for being darker than the last. ‘Harry Potter grows older and darker’ was Time‘s headline for their review of Order of the Phoenix .

Given the larger number of books and films in the Harry Potter series, this trend is most obvious for this franchise, but is not confined to it. You might not think that a series that kicks off with the state-sanctioned murder of 23 children and adolescents by their peers could get any darker, but according to reviewers, the Hunger Games franchise did. The Atlantic found Mockingjay: Part 1, the third film in the series, ‘darker, more relentless’ than the previous installments, spelling out what they meant while unintentionally proving the Sequel Is Always Darker rule: ‘The second installment was already weightier than the first, and in this outing the moral gravity has been ratcheted up once more.’ The Star Wars prequel Rogue One was obviously going to have a different tone from the earlier films, given its content, but alongside its universal reputation as ‘dark’, fans still asked ‘Should Rogue One Have Been Even Darker?‘ To look at a different kind of follow-up, remakes of classic movies are often praised as being ‘darker’ than the originals. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake was seen as ‘the darker side of Willy Wonka‘. Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been reviewed as both ‘darker’ than the original 1990s sitcom and comic book series and as getting darker than its original self season-by-season. Showrunners also love to tease fans with ‘darker’ sequels, as with this piece on the third season of Stranger Things,  which claims, ‘it’s definitely going to get darker still – [it will go to?] places that I think audiences are going to really love.’

But what do reviewers actually mean when they say that a book or film is ‘darker’ than its predecessor? We could spend ages arguing over what it means to be ‘dark’ (kill count? tone? grey morality?) or whether or not these sequels are actually darker, but instead, I want to suggest that when people say something is ‘darker’, they mean it is ‘better’, and this is a big problem.

Why does darker = better, especially when it comes to popular science fiction and fantasy series? My hypothesis is that it’s a signal that these books and films are worthy of adult attention, and so it’s OK if you’re an adult and you like them. Popular associations surrounding these genres still associate them with children, and one way for both artists and their fans to try and shed this ‘childish’ reputation is to talk about how dark their work is, and how much darker it’s going to be. This also explains why the first episode may be dark, but the next one is always darker: series need to ‘mature’, ‘grow up’, ‘develop’, because these are all Good Things, whereas remaining in the supposedly immature and undeveloped world of childhood is bad.

This is problematic enough in itself, because it simultaneously devalues children and adolescents, claims that young people don’t want complex stories, and assumes that being into ‘darker’ media makes you a better, more serious adult. It sets up a false binary between cheery, morally black-and-white children’s fiction and dark, morally grey fiction for adults. However, I’d also argue that playing into this narrative leads writers, filmmakers and showrunners into serious trouble. I’m going to reserve my full Harry Potter rant for another post, but suffice it to say that I think Rowling’s decision to make the series ‘grow up with Harry’ not only gives it a horribly uneven tone, but actually leads to it becoming less morally interesting. Rogue One disappointed me terribly because it served up such simplistic and boring characters compared to its companion film, A New Hope, as if being serious means that you don’t get to have a personality (you know you’ve gone wrong when the robot is the most compelling person in your film). And season three of Stranger Things misstepped by deciding that it had to fully embrace adolescence rather than exploring the ways in which our protagonists are still children – or realising that it was its celebration of childhood creativity and ingenuity that made the first two series so great.

I think it’s time to abolish the assumption that darker is better, or even that calling something ‘dark’ is a meaningful description. I love a lot of fiction that has been called ‘dark’, such as A Song of Ice and Fire and Black Mirror. But give me The Force Awakens or the book version of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone any day over other films or books in those franchises that try to be ‘dark’ because they think that’s how to be ‘grown up’, and, in doing so, reinforce our limited ideas of what is worthy of our notice.

 

 

Three Things… September 2019

As ever, borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter!

Reading

 

I’ve been delving into a subreddit called nosleep, which focuses on ‘realistic horror stories’; as you’d expect, it’s of very mixed quality, but contains some real gems. On Elle’s recommendation, I started with ‘Has anyone heard of the Left/Right game?’, and moved on to ‘I’m a search and rescue officer for the US Forest Service, I have some stories to tell’. The first is a straightforward ‘found footage’ set-up, focusing on a journalist called Alice who sets off on a journey along a terrifying road, and has a fully realised plot that is recounted to us through a series of files that Alice’s friend, the subreddit poster, claims to have found. The second doesn’t have a plot as such, but is actually even scarier as we’re introduced to a series of mysterious disappearances in one of the US National Parks, and the sets of staircases that rangers occasionally come across that lead to nowhere. They’re told by their superiors never to go near them or talk about them, but of course some people break the rules…

What I find especially fascinating about these nosleep stories is the way that they play with the genre conventions of message boards to create a new kind of fiction. In one sense, this is a very traditional way to tell a story – in serialised parts – but it gets interesting when commentators below the line start playing along, and treat the story as if it’s real, like this poster on the US Forest Service story: ‘I’ve heard about these staircases too, my ex was a SAR officer and he mentioned them and told me not to tell anyone. It pissed me off, because he didn’t know much about them and didn’t seem to find it as fascinating as I did.’ Obviously, part of the game is not knowing who’s recounting real stories and who’s deliberately playing into the theme of the board, and if possible, this makes these stories even more terrifying. Seriously, do not read either of these after dark, or, if you’re easily spooked, by yourself. Both of them remind me a little of James Smythe’s SF novels The Explorer and The Echowhich suggests how well horror conventions can be integrated into other genres (see also: George R.R. Martin’s depiction of the Red Wedding in A Storm of Swords). But they also made me think about how horror rarely works well in long form, and how this is a new way to connect with readers.

Watching

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On a very different note, I’ve been indulging in nostalgia recently! I went to see Wise Children’s production of Malory Towersadapted and directed by Emma Rice, at the York Theatre Royal. I loved Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers novels as a child but am in no sense a Malory Towers purist; I liked how this show drew on elements from all six novels in a mishmash of fun. The cast have a great energy and there are some hilarious moments, most notably Mary-Lou dangling from a cliff and being rescued by a horse.  School bully Gwendoline was also depicted wonderfully (I’m a Gwendoline apologist and so is this show). Nevertheless, it didn’t quite come together for me as a whole. I think this was partly the result of trying to handle too many characters; Rice rightly wants to show how all the girls are flawed and have their own secrets and complexities, but there’s just too much going on. Also, a number of the character choices for the pupils jarred for me. In the original, Sally is terribly jealous of her baby sister, and Alicia is an incredibly smart girl who struggles to empathise with others because everything comes so easily to her. In this, only child Sally is simply ignored by her parents and Alicia worries about keeping up with the other girls in lessons. In short, they’re both reduced to much less interesting archetypes, and I didn’t understand why.

Finally, Bill was a highlight of the show for me; played wonderfully by non-binary actor Vinnie Heaven, the character is exuberantly gender non-conforming. The show itself did a good job of leaving it up to the audience how to interpret Bill, I thought; is he a trans boy, are they non-binary, or is she a lesbian in a very 1940s mould? However, the reviews of this show all seem to have decided that Bill is definitely trans (it’s not clear whether Rice herself intended the reading to be so set in stone). I find this a bit of a problem because the character in the play is produced from the rolling together of two Blyton characters who are canonically lesbian (some may question this, but they would be wrong; the two characters decide to live together and set up a stables at the end of the series, and for anyone who knows anything about inter-war lesbian coding, it’s written all over them). There does seem to be a tendency recently for media to operate a ‘one in one out’ policy on lesbian and trans characters; if your show has a trans man, it seemingly can’t have a lesbian as well (see also: The Chilling Adventures of Sabrinawhich I’ve been watching on Netflix). Both trans men and lesbians are still chronically under-represented, so I think this is really sad. Why can’t we have both?

Thinking

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After giving my talk on ‘When children became evil’ at the British Science Festival, which was held this year at the University of Warwick, I enjoyed seeing some of the other talks. The highlight for me was probably Robin Allaby’s talk on ‘The lost landmass of Doggerland’ where he described his team’s scientific research on this lost landmass in the North Sea that used to connect Britain and Europe. I was fascinated to hear about a wide range of phenomena, including ‘Seahenge’, a submerged timber circle discovered in Norfolk, the remains of forests that can be found under the North Sea (I already knew about the ones found in Cambridgeshire peat fens!), and the Storegga Slide tsunami that caused an underwater landslide 8200 years ago, marking this hidden landscape. Julia Blackburn’s Time Song: Searching for Doggerland was already on my TBR list, but now I’m extra keen to read it. I was also fascinated by Diva Amon’s talk on ‘The dark heart of the ocean‘, which focused on deep-sea mining but also included some interesting bits about deep sea landscapes, such as how ancient many of the organisms are (tubeworms can live up to 1000 years and black corals 4200 years) and so how hard they find it to adapt to human interference. Finally, Hannah Belcher, Karen Leneh Buckle, Will Mandy and Hannah Hayward spoke on ‘Autism: the lost girls’, about how girls with autism are routinely ignored or misdiagnosed because of the ‘extreme male brain’ stereotype: the most moving part of this talk was the Q&A, where many audience members spoke of their own struggles with getting help for their daughters or granddaughters.

The Books That Made Me, Part 2

Part I can be found here. Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Early Teenage Years (13 to 16)

 

In my early teens, SF and fantasy still dominated my reading, with a little more realism creeping in. I read Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom as a child, along with many of her other novels, but in my early teens, my absolute favourite was Back Home, about a twelve-year-old girl, Rusty, who returns to England at the end of the Second World War after being evacuated to the States. As someone who spent a significant part of her childhood in Washington DC before moving ‘back home’ to England, where I was born, I strongly identified with Rusty. As I got older, I appreciated Magorian’s subtle characterisation more and more; Back Home is less idealised than Goodnight Mister Tom, and the adult characters don’t split so neatly into good and bad.

Berlie Doherty’s The Sailing Ship Tree really shaped my own writing as a teenager; set in the Edwardian period, it describes the emerging friendship between ‘Master George’, the privileged son of a landed family, and twins Dorothy and Walter, who live on his estate. Told in multiple viewpoints, The Sailing Ship Tree has virtually no plot but is emotionally complex and very moving.

I devoured Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights when it first came out and waited eagerly for the next two books in the series. Sadly, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy re-reading Pullman as an adult, but I absolutely loved all the His Dark Materials books as a teenager. Going to a comprehensive school in Bath where evangelical Christianity was surprisingly dominant among my fellow pupils, I ate up Pullman’s opposition to organised religion, even though I now find his world-view simplistic and aggressive. I also loved reading Pullman’s writing advice, much of which is quite sound, and his suggestion [paraphrased] that ‘writers should study anything but English Literature’ had a big hand in me choosing a History degree.

John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves is about two teenagers living on the moon who fall through its surface into a strange underground world. Eerie and compelling, I still enjoy reading this. Another SF favourite was Lois Lowry’s much more famous The Giver, which still has me pondering ethical questions about the distribution of resources in a fair society, the problems with sexual attraction, and how we handle feelings.

Finally, Susan Cooper’s time-slip story King of Shadows had a much bigger impact on me than her more famous Dark Is Rising series, which I read as a child. Nathan, mourning the loss of his parents, is flung back in time and becomes an actor in Shakespeare’s company. This rather whimsical premise is rooted in clever historical detail and a beautiful exploration of the filial bond that develops between Nathan and Shakespeare.

Late Teenage Years (16 to 19)

 

While the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books were not as structurally perfect as the first three, they fuelled my Harry Potter obsession further; this article gives a pretty good account of how it felt to be a teenage fan in the years before book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, came out. While I never ‘shipped’ Sirius and Lupin, I was just as devoted to seeking out clues in the text of the first five books as were the romance-orientated fans described in the article linked above. I was convinced that the moral complexity that seemed to be emerging in book five, when Sirius tells Harry that ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘, would pay off, and spent hours on the internet discussing theories with fellow fans – both other teenagers, and adults. Therefore, it’s hard to convey just how disappointed I was by book six without sounding silly. I’d invested so much time and effort into this series, and I felt like JKR had thrown it all in my face – the terrible romance, the awful plotting, the evil-from-birth baby Tom Riddle who ‘never cried’. I’m not going to write extensively about Harry Potter here because I have a Monster Rant post coming up, but suffice it to say that my anger with books six and seven was incredibly formative. As an adult, I can see that many of the structural problems that afflicted the last two books in the series were present in books four and five as well, but the material in those books was so much more generous and interesting, that I still like them even though I know I shouldn’t.

Luckily, George R.R. Martin stepped in to fill the fantasy gap. I first read A Game of Thrones in 2004, when seemingly no-one else in the UK had heard of it, and became totally addicted to A Song of Ice and Fire, blazing through the next three books over the next year. Please always remember: these books are nothing like the TV series. Rather than a nihilistic world portrayed through a series of misogynistic tropes, Martin presents a universe that is brutal and misogynistic, but where hope and honour can win out, and with a large and diverse female cast who deal with Westerosi society in their own way. What Martin is best at is handling the readers’ sympathies; making us rethink our own allegiances; exploring shades of grey. It’s a literary skill that I still think is massively underrated, and it’s been hugely influential on my own writing. One day I’m going to write a longer post about A Song of Ice and Fire, but suffice it to say that it ENRAGES me that the Harry Potter series has a wholly undeserved ‘feminist’ reputation, whereas Song is written off as sexist, largely because of the awful TV series.

 

And now we get to the really formative books, the books that have had the most profound impact on the way I read and write. The most significant of these has to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As an eighteen-year-old, I was entranced by how Ishiguro approached speculative fiction; throwing scientific accuracy out the window in favour of emotional truth. Kathy H’s voice is absolutely convincing, and I still think about Tommy’s tantrums: ‘Maybe I knew something all along. Something the rest of you didn’t’. If you haven’t read this uncanny story of three teenagers growing up in a peculiar school, what on earth are you waiting for?

Two classic novels also shaped my mindset during this period. My school had been given a free set of Everyman’s Classics at some point, so around the age of sixteen, I started methodically reading through them. I had studied Jane Eyre in Year Nine and liked it, but Charlotte Bronte’s lesser-known and yet greater novel, Villette, totally blew me away. Lucy Snowe, its protagonist, is a strikingly modern heroine who only slowly infiltrates her way into the narrative. She’s an unreliable and not totally likeable narrator, but Bronte’s exploration of her emotional isolation is utterly heartbreaking. I’ve written more about Villette here. Similarly, Middlemarch was an education; the ways in which Eliot extends sympathy to each and every character are still too little replicated in modern novels. (Though it’s clearly an inferior text, I also loved Adam Bede).

Finally, I returned to a childhood favourite, Robin McKinley, for two novels that I’ve re-read countless times. Rose Daughter, a second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, shaped how I write about place and landscape, with its beautiful evocation of the Beast’s castle and the roses that Beauty cultivates there. (Poor McKinley has been lumbered with some terrible covers in her time – please ignore the fact that this looks like a bad romance novel!) Sunshine, which featured vampires before they became fashionable, is a totally different kind of story, with its rambling, captivating narrator and brilliantly imagined futuristic world. I’m only allowed to re-read this very occasionally for fear of wearing the magic out; I love it so much.

What were your favourite teenage reads, and do you still enjoy them now?

[NB. I have put the promised Parts 2 and 3 into one post as there wasn’t really a sensible way to separate them – hence why this is so long!]

The Books That Made Me, Part 1

I’ve been thinking about where my basic assumptions about what makes a good novel comes from, and how both my reading preferences and the themes, structures and concerns of my own creative writing can be traced back to a handful of crucial titles. These are not my favourite books of all time, or the books that I think are the best, but they are books that I once loved or still love. Post inspired partly by Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm!

Early Childhood Favourites (Under 8)

I was a precocious reader (nobody who reads this blog will be at all surprised to hear) and my mum struggled to find me books that I wouldn’t eat up in two seconds and yet would still be appropriate for my age. It’s not surprising that she turned to fantasy. What’s wonderful about all these titles is that they’re books that have lived with me for more than twenty years, enriching my life differently as I get older; they’re books that I didn’t necessarily understand completely the first time I read them, but which have shaped my understanding of story-form on an unconscious level.

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Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, especially the first two titles in the series, Dealing With Dragons and Searching For Dragons, have given me endless pleasure throughout the years. Most importantly, I think their use of twisted fairytale elements made me understand that stories look different from different points of view. Princess Cimorene volunteers to live with a dragon, but has to constantly turn away disgruntled princes who want to rescue her so they can get half her father’s kingdom and her hand in marriage. Rumpelstiltskin is forced, through family tradition, to take the babies of women who can’t guess his name after spinning straw into gold, but he can’t provide for all the children, and he can’t spin gold for himself; he solves the problem by setting up a boarding school and hiring a good lawyer to make it into a charitable trust, so he can spin for charity. Wizards, like the Wicked Witch of the West, can be vanquished by a bucket of soapy water, but don’t forget to add lemon juice, or it doesn’t work. Unlike many favourite children’s books, I honestly feel that these could be read and appreciated at any age, even if you first come to them as an adult.

Monica Furlong’s Wise Child and Juniper, about a group of powerful women, called dorans, who strive to live in harmony with the earth, put forward a beautiful and subtly feminist vision of female power, based on Cornish folklore. In that, they share some elements with Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet*, especially The Tombs of Atuan and Tehanu. I didn’t fully understand any of these books as a child, but their descriptions of light and dark magic made a deep impression. Similarly, Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown, about a female dragon killer, was almost incomprehensible to me at first due to the way it nested stories within stories, but it became my first introduction to this storytelling style. Her Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast was more accessible for a seven-year-old. Finally, my mum’s childhood copy of Alan Garner’s A Weirdstone of Brisingamen scared me and delighted me at the same time, and the scene when Colin and Susan are chased through an underground cave system is still an exemplar of how to build up tension.

*There were only four books when I was little…

Late Childhood Favourites (8-12)

Fantasy and speculative fiction continued to dominate my reading during this period (I read plenty of more realistic books as well, I just didn’t like them as much) with the beginnings of some science fiction as well. Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams is still one of the most terrifying books I’ve ever read, and also a great lesson in how to mix fantasy and reality; it focuses on Marianne, who is confined to bed with a long illness, and who starts to discover that the things she draws come to life in her dreams. Lionel Davidson’s almost unknown Under Plum Lake is a deeply haunting narrative of a boy who discovers a secret world deep under the sea; impossible to summarise, impossible to forget. The last of these three books – they always go together in my mind – is Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes, about a girl at boarding school in the 1960s who unknowingly swaps places with a girl at the same school in 1918. All these novels have the supernatural, otherworldly quality that I strive for in my own fiction.

All these books were published decades before I was born. On the other hand, there were modern series: so many series! Growing up in the 1990s, very few new books for children or teenagers seemed to be stand-alones. Many of these titles were rubbish, but there were some exceptions. I bought the first Harry Potter book in 1997, and so was a little ahead of the curve; I was enraptured by how incredibly well-plotted it was, and the complex moral universe that seemed to be suggested by its two sequels. Alas, the Harry Potter series jumped the shark for me after book five (see monster rant coming soon), but I still admire the first three books. More satisfying was K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, which I’ve written about before but will never stop talking about, probably because they had the single biggest impact on my childhood self. This SF series stars a group of teenagers who can change into any animal they can touch and have to use these powers to fight a guerrilla war against an undercover alien invasion that’s infiltrating Earth by taking over human bodies. By the age of ten, I was desperate for books that moved beyond heroes and villains and explored more difficult questions about morality; Animorphs, which ends with our all-American boy hero committing genocide against the main alien antagonists of the series, delivered this in spades. Given that the series is fifty-four books long, plus some sequels, super editions and spin-offs, it obviously varies in quality, but nothing else I read made me think so hard.

This post got too long, so Parts 2 and 3 are coming soon! Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Have you read any of these books? What were your childhood favourites, and how have they affected the way that you read and/or write fiction?

My Top Ten Books of 2018

It’s time for another top ten books of the year list! (You can find my 2017 post here, my 2016 post here, my 2015 post here, and my 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 posts on my old blog.) For clarity, these are my ten favourite books I have read this year, regardless of when they were published.

In no particular order…

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1. Speak No Evil: Uzodinma Iweala. Iweala’s second novel tells, at first glance, a very familiar story. Teenage Niru is quietly trying to fit in at an upscale DC school, although he’s set apart by being both black and gay. But its brilliance comes from Iweala’s experimental literary style, blending Niru’s dialogue and interior monologue in a way that captures his voice and yet makes complete sense to the reader. Iweala’s debut, Beasts of No Nation, is definitely on my TBR list for 2019. Speak No Evil was a NetGalley discovery, and I reviewed it here.

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2. Bookworm: Lucy Mangan. How much did I adore this engrossing memoir, in which journalist Lucy Mangan takes us on a tour of the books she loved in childhood and adolescence? Along the way, she also writes hilariously and delightfully about herself and her family. I’ve already given this as a gift to two friends. This was picked up after reading so many positive reviews of it from other bloggers, and I reviewed it here.

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3. The Western WindSamantha Harvey. This was one of the books I was most looking forward to in 2018, and it didn’t disappoint. I already knew Harvey was an incredible writer, but in this novel, she manages to write with impressive historical empathy about the late medieval mindset, narrating in the voice of a village priest, John Reve, investigating the murder of one of his flock. The novel is told backwards, but, as Reve teases out the truth in the final pages, it ends up becoming almost a circle, mirroring how fifteenth-century villagers might have thought about time.  I also loved Harvey’s Dear Thief when I read it, and I’ll have to check out her back catalogue in 2019; All Is Song looks especially intriguing. I reviewed The Western Wind here.

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4. Let Go My Hand: Edward Docx. This was one of my 20 Books of Summer, and while it’s the third of Docx’s novels I’ve read, it’s the first one that really blew me away. Louis journeys with his terminally ill father, Larry, towards Switzerland so Larry can end his life at Dignitas. When Louis’s two older half-brothers, Ralph and Jack, turn up, Docx takes us back through their complicated family history as well as unpicking the way they relate to each other now. Let Go My Hand is one of those very unusual books that manage to be both genuinely funny and profoundly moving. It’s been unfairly overlooked by most critics, and I can’t recommend it enough. I reviewed it here.

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5. The Growing Season: Helen Sedgwick. In a year packed with speculative re-imaginings of pregnancy, child-bearing and motherhood, The Growing Season easily stood out for me. Sedgwick imagines a world where babies are now nurtured in artificial wombs, installed in wearable pouches, and getting pregnant in the old-fashioned way is stigmatised. Sedgwick’s narrative is admirably even-handed, refusing to present this technological advance as either dystopian or as straightforwardly liberatory, and the result is a consistently thought-provoking, moving and gripping piece of speculative fiction. The Growing Season was another of my 20 Books of Summer, and I reviewed it here.

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6. Asymmetry: Lisa Halliday. Also on my 20 Books of Summer list, Halliday’s courageous debut faces questions about fiction and authenticity head-on, even though it begins on cliched ground, as a young writer, Alice, starts an affair with a much older writer, Ezra. I reviewed it here.

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7. Melmoth: Sarah Perry. I didn’t really love either After Me Comes The Flood or The Essex Serpentbut I was captivated by this Calvinist horror story about sin, regret and redemption. Perry creates a terrifying female figure called Melmoth the Wanderer (based on Charles Maturin’s 1820 Gothic novel), who wanders through history seeking out lost souls and bearing witness to acts of unspeakable evil. I reviewed Melmoth here.

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8. Leaving Atlanta: Tayari Jones. Jones’s latest novel, An American Marriagehas received a lot of attention this year, especially after being named by Obama as one of his summer reads. However, I was even more impressed by her debut, Leaving Atlanta, which I chose for my book group in November. The novel is set in Atlanta in 1979, when dozens of African-American children were going missing. Narrated from the perspective of three fifth-graders, it uses this particular tragedy to say broader things about the fears that  black children internalise as they approach adolescence. I’m now keen to read more by Jones, and The Untelling is up next. I wrote briefly about Leaving Atlanta here.

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9. The OverstoryRichard Powers. Powers’s Booker-shortlisted novel takes nine protagonists and sets them in relation to the fight to stop the remnants of ancient American forests being destroyed. Despite deliberately reducing the significance of humanity in light of a much longer natural history and the destruction we’re wreaking on the planet, it also presents a number of closely observed portraits of individuals. Lots of recent books have brought up the scientific hypothesis that trees talk to each other, but The Overstory makes the best use of it. Powers has a big backlist, and I think I’ll try The Echo Maker next. I reviewed The Overstory here.

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10. The Boat People: Sharon Bala. Bala’s debut starts with a group of Sri Lankan refugees arriving in Canada in 2009, and flips between three first-person perspectives: Mahindan, a refugee; Japanese-Canadian Grace, charged with adjudicating the refugees’ asylum claims; and second-generation Sri Lankan lawyer Priya. The Boat People is thoughtful and authentic, raising similar questions to Melmoth about our own moral limits, although in a less explicitly horrific way. I reviewed it here.

Reading Stats

I read 155 books in 2018. This sets a new record for me, smashing my 2017 total of 127. Next year, I’ll set a target of 125 – I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to keep outdoing the previous year’s total.

I read 39 books by men and 116 by women. This has been the worst year yet for men, making up only 25% of the books I read. I’m not especially interested in setting any targets for reading male authors but I note that, as usual, men are slightly over-represented in my Top Ten books, making up 30% of the list. I’d like to continue seeking out books by male authors I’ve enjoyed in the past, and try and discover some new ones.

I read 44 books by writers of colour and 111 books by white writers. As in previous years, I’ve read more books by writers of colour than ever before, but my percentages only inch up very slowly. 28% of the books I read this year were by writers of colour (as compared to 25% in 2017 and 15% in 2016). I’m going to set a more achievable target for this year, and try and get that 28% to 33%, or one-third of all books I read.

Finally, here’s what Goodreads thinks was My Year In Books:

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Holiday Reading in the USA, Part Two

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One of the key goals of my trip to the US was to buy a copy of Tana French’s latest novel, The Witch Elm, and get it back to the UK (not easy with a very big hardback book and a very limited baggage allowance). As readers of this blog will know, I am a huge fan of Tana French’s literary crime writing, and am always trying to recruit people to my cult (my success rate is high). Her first six novels were all focused on detectives working in the Dublin Murder Squad, making The Witch Elm her first stand-alone, although it retains the Dublin setting. Our narrator, Toby, has lived a life that he describes as ‘lucky’ and we might describe as ‘privileged’; as a white, middle-class, straight man, he has no structural barriers to overcome until the moment two burglars break into his flat and beat him brutally, leaving him dealing with neurological disabilities. While still trying to get back on his feet, he goes to stay with his dying uncle Hugo, and reunites with his two cousins, Susanna and Leon. But when a skeleton is discovered in the wych elm in Hugo’s garden, Toby realises that his gilded past might not have been as fortunate as he thought.

While the quality of French’s writing shows no sign of diminishing, I felt that The Witch Elm ranked alongside my least favourite of the Dublin Murder Squad novels, rather than with the best; in theme and accomplishment, it’s most similar to French’s debut, In the Woods. One thing that was lacking for me was the interplay of genre and literary conventions that marks out the most brilliant of French’s novels; by discarding the police procedural elements, French ends up writing a much more straightforward literary novel that is more reminiscent of The Secret History and its many imitators  than crime fiction. I missed this tension, which French handles so well – although after reading her first six novels multiple times, I felt that I could almost read the minds of the policemen who interrogate Toby and his family, and found myself wondering which strategies and masks they were using, which was fun 🙂

Moreover, although The Witch Elm’s message about privilege is powerful, I felt it was a bit too clearly spelt out, especially near the end of the novel, when Toby is carefully lectured by Susanna and Leon. Earlier scenes, such as Toby’s attitude to the ‘urban youth’ whose art he is meant to be promoting as part of his job – he sees the whole endeavour as a politically correct racket – make the point about his character much more subtly. Nevertheless, the dissolution of Toby’s very self as he realises he can no longer rely on being seen as a ‘blank slate’ – that he is now being judged by his stammer, his twitches and his pauses – is very well done. Toby can’t understand who he is now he is seen by society as a ‘disabled man’ rather than simply as a person; he’s lost his ability to imagine himself as anything he wants to be, and now can’t imagine himself as anything at all.

Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before The Start Of Time combines the artificial wombs of Helen Sedgwick’s The Growing Season with the single-parent babies of Angela Chadwick’s XX to present a series of vignettes across three generations that consider how both new technologies and changing social norms transform child-bearing and child-rearing. This short book is deceptively easy to read, but I felt like little of it was sticking with me; books that jump forward in time like this often end up making the characters’ children and grandchildren into no more than a list of names, a problem that was also obvious in Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us. I liked the fact that Charnock mixed together a series of advances rather than focusing on a single ‘what-if’ scenario, but she didn’t really give herself the space to consider these alternative realities in enough depth.

I came across Robin Oliveira’s My Name Is Mary Suttera historical novel about a midwife wanting to train as a surgeon who ends up nursing wounded soldiers in DC in the midst of the American Civil War, on Claire’s blog. The novel is not only hard-hitting but almost tragic, in the Greek sense; Oliveira seems determined to force Mary to a point where she literally has only herself to rely on, where she must completely re-examine the initial determination to receive medical training that drove her to this point. As with Lissa Evans’s Old Baggage, I enjoyed reading about a female protagonist who is primarily motivated by ambition and idealism rather than by love, friendship and family, although Oliveira also emphasises Mary’s emotional ties. There are a few annoying tropes -[highlight for spoiler] why does Mary’s unambitious and feminine sister, Jenny, have to compete with her over a man, get married, do nothing, and then die horribly in childbirth[end spoiler] – but the vitality of Mary’s character pulls the novel through.

What next, now I’m sadly back in the UK? I’m enthralled by Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, which I have to call a Calvinist ghost story (thanks to Rebecca for handing on her proof copy!) and am slowly enjoying Ursula Le Guin’s classic The Left Hand of Darkness, while I found Elisa Lodato’s An Unremarkable Body to be an unsatisfactory mix of literary experimentation and chick lit. For peaceful, contemplative bedtime reading, I’m rediscovering some Michael Morpurgo favourites from childhood – Kensuke’s Kingdom and King of the Cloud Forests – and for more unsettling dreams, I re-read a book that haunted my teenage years, John Marsden’s Letters from the Inside.

GUEST POST. Bruce Bogtrotter: A Case Study in Resistance

This is a guest post by Dr Sebastian Nye, lecturer in philosophy at Oxford, inspired by my previous post on The Demon Headmaster.

My childhood copy of Matilda on the left; the newest version on the right.

Fat boys do not, as a rule, come across well in Roald Dahl stories. Usually they are all-consumed with gluttony, unable to attend to anything beyond the next mouthful. Bruno Jenkins, in The Witches, is depicted as so obsessed with eating that he not only misses the danger posed by the witches, but also the fact that he has been turned into a mouse. However, there is one glorious exception: Bruce Bogtrotter from Matilda. Bruce is a pupil at Crunchem Hall, presided over by the discipline-obsessed and sadistic Miss Trunchbull. The school is introduced as a place where punishment is swift and dissent is almost impossible. While the regime is finally overthrown by Matilda, Bruce is at the centre of the first act of successful resistance. In keeping with the fat kids in Dahl’s other works, Bruce lets gluttony get the better of him and steals a slice of Miss Trunchbull’s private chocolate cake. He is caught and the headmistress subjects him to the most humiliating punishment she can think of.

Bruce is given the seemingly impossible task of eating the rest of the giant cake in front of the whole school. Trunchbull no doubt expects him to be violently sick or, at the very least, become an object of universal disgust, leading to merciless bullying from the other kids for years to come. However, she miscalculates: the kids hate her more than they are disgusted by him. Far from taunting Bruce, they cheer him on and, when he finishes the cake, is applauded as a hero. Trunchbull is so furious that she smashes the cake platter over his head. Happily, Bruce is too full of cake for it to harm him. This is a turning point in the book. While it does not overthrow Trunchbull a crucial step is taken towards that end: successful resistance is shown to be possible. The children in Tim Minchin’s musical adaptation express the significance of this by singing: ‘We never thought it was possible/but here it is coming true/we can have our cake and eat it too’.

Organised acts of resistance by children against school authorities certainly occur. One wonderful example took place in 1972, when ten thousand British school children walked out of school to protest the use of corporal punishment. Despite this, the depiction of such organised resistance in children’s fiction is relatively unusual. However, Matilda, and the episode with Bruce Bogtrotter in particular, is not only significant because it depicts resistance by children against their school. It is significant because of what it tells us about protest and resistance more generally. When people think of protest and resistance, at least in liberal democracies, they often have in mind specific kinds of activities such going on a demonstration with a banner, signing a petition, writing a blog, and so on. Going on strike is about as radical as it gets. These activities are, for the most part, safe, familiar, predictable and easily identifiable. That is not necessarily a bad thing. However, it does lead to a view of protest and resistance which is, I think, unfortunately narrow. There are three important points to draw out about the episode with Bruce each of which, in different ways, puts pressure this arguably narrow conception of resistance.

The first is that what constitutes an act of process depends, very largely, on context. If eating a chocolate cake can, in the right circumstances, be an act of resistance, then anything can. (As a chubby kid myself, this was certainly the kind of protest I can get behind.) Gandhi made some salt, Rosa Parks sat on a seat, and Bruce ate a cake. Acts of resistance and protest should not be understood as a handful of discrete activities. Second, even acts which are prima facie objectionable can be valid and important acts of protest. I, myself, do not think that there is anything disgusting in being an overweight kid who eats chocolate cake. As I mentioned, I was that kid. However, Dahl clearly did, and that is the prescribed response from the text. Accepting that Bruce is a disgusting glutton does not, however, do anything to lessen his act of protest. Just as Diogenes the Cynic illustrates that defecation and masturbation can be valid forms of protest despite being disgusting (indeed, because they are disgusting), so Bruce demonstrates that vice and valuable resistance are not mutually exclusive. ‘Dignified protest’ is usually used as a term of praise, but perhaps there is something to be said for undignified protest.

Third, even obedience to authority can constitutes resistance against it. Bruce, after all, did exactly what he was told to do. In a sense, all that happened was that he was told to eat a chocolate cake and he ate a chocolate cake. By doing exactly what he was told to do, he highlighted Trunchbull’s weaknesses; in particular, that she understood neither his eating capacities nor, more importantly, the school’s social dynamic and her own unpopularity relative to his. Defiant obedience can show up authority, and exploitation of this can be powerful. A perhaps stretched comparison can be made with Socrates. At his trial, as reported in the Apology, Socrates did what he was officially supposed to do: defend himself, honestly and truthfully, against the charges made against him. However, he deliberately and explicitly failed to do what he was unofficially supposed to do: weep, wail, present his children and wife in floods of tears, and beg for the mercy and kindness of the Athenians.

As a result, Socrates highlighted the hypocrisy of the Athenians and the judicial process, which purportedly aimed at establishing the truth, and as a result received the death sentence. Again, we are told in Crito that Socrates was widely expected to flee the city before his execution. (Indeed, it seems that the Athenians wanted him gone but did not want to get blood on their hands, so Socrates fleeing was the generally preferred outcome.) However, once again, Socrates did what he was officially supposed to do – stay and be executed – rather than what the Athenians expected and wanted him to do. This is another act of defiant resistance against Athens, which made Socrates a martyr. Although, as an act of defiant resistance, consuming chocolate cake is preferable to hemlock.

Anarchism, childhood and The Demon Headmaster

Inspired by a combination of Matilda: The Musical, which I saw at the Sunderland Empire a few weeks ago, and Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood ReadingI’ve been thinking about childhood books I read that were pleasingly, if perhaps unintentionally, critical of prevailing ideas about schooling and childhood. The first that sprang to mind was Gillian Cross’s The Demon Headmaster (1982). The premise is simple: a headmaster possesses the power to hypnotise (almost) anybody he can look straight in the eye, and keeps a school of children under his thrall so he can pursue his plans for world domination and the imposition of an orderly, perfect society. A small group of children are naturally resistant to hypnosis, and so form SPLAT (Society for the Protection of Our Lives Against Them. Could an acronym be more perfect?). However, when two of our protagonists, Lloyd and Harvey, meet their new foster sister, Dinah, they realise that despite her exceptional intelligence, she’s as easily hypnotised as the other children. Will Lloyd and Harvey be brought down by the ‘traitor’ in their midst, or does Dinah hold the key to their salvation?

 

A series of Demon Headmaster covers. L to R: The copy I first read from my school library; the copy I own; the weird modern cover, where the Headmaster looks like a Midwich Cuckoo.

The things I love about The Demon Headmaster are as follows:

  • The demon headmaster, referred to only as the Headmaster in the book, teaches by hypnotising the children so they learn long chunks of lessons by heart, but we later find out that he’s also implanting instructions to his pupils so they can execute his future evil plans, which will be led by the prefects. School as a training ground for capitalist society, anyone? (Although it’s fair to say that the Headmaster’s future plans sound decidedly more quasi-communist than capitalist, unsurprisingly considering when this book was written.)
  • The Headmaster also implants hypnotic commands so the children will recite rote answers when questioned by their parents about school. The best of these is what’s triggered whenever the Headmaster himself is mentioned: “I think the Headmaster is a marvellous man and this is the best school I’ve ever been to.” However, none of the parents notice how weirdly their children are behaving, nor do they listen to SPLAT’s protests that their peers are obviously hypnotised. Unintentionally, the book draws attention to the routine ignoring and belittling of children’s perspectives, especially their views regarding school.
  • Dinah is a kind of character I’ve never encountered anywhere else; she’s incredibly bright but desperate to hide her intelligence, not because she fears being bullied but because she knows it will mark her out among the adults as weird and precocious. She also visibly struggles to not jump ahead of her peers too quickly for the sake of maintaining friendships. Precious few books deal with the particular trials of being a very bright child; there’s lots of narratives about ‘bookish’ children being bullied but it’s rare to find something that’s so clear about the other difficulties of being ‘ahead of one’s age’ (and indeed the ageism that’s inherent in that very assumption).
  • SPLAT’s set of passwords is the Headmaster’s motto: ‘The man who can keep order can rule the world’ followed by their own response: ‘But the man who can bear disorder is truly free.’ So basically, they’re an anarchist collective bringing down a Stalin-like dictatorship. Excellent!

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Still from the Demon Headmaster TV series: a perfectly cast Headmaster with his prefects.

The Demon Headmaster was followed up by two even better, if less subversive, sequels: The Prime Minister’s Brain and The Revenge of the Demon Headmaster, then a few other sequels that were decidedly sub-par, and seemingly tacked on after the books were made into a TV series (which was FAB, despite terrible child acting from everyone except Dinah and Rose, the female head prefect).

Can anyone think of other subversive school fiction like Matilda and The Demon Headmaster?