Thursday, 12 January 2017

A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens (Box Clever Challenge - December)

It had to be didn't it? Well how can you do a Classic reading challenge and not have any Dickens on the list?

There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor

Christmas, a time to bring in the holly and ivy, put decorations on a tree, fill up on turkey and mince pies, and watch terrible TV whilst ripping garish coloured paper off numerous presents! Surely there's more to Christmas than that!

In today's overly commercial society, it does us good to curl up with a copy of A Christmas Carol, and journey with the lead character, Ebenezer Scrooge as he is visited nightly by ghosts and shown his Christmases past, present and future.

Dickens' novel contains a plethora of characters who exhibit many different qualities, some good, and some bad. The book is essentially Scrooges journey from being a self-centred miser to his awakening, where he becomes a warm-hearted, caring human being who thinks of those less fortunate than himself. It's a book that shows that there is more to Christmas (and life) than seeing who can spend the most money on each other, but that we should try and spend what precious time we have with friends and family and to think of others, not just ourselves.

A Christmas Carol is probably one of the most popular stories in the English Language. It has been reincarnated on screen over and over again, ensuring new generations get to know  about the tale of Scrooge. I can remember being about 10 years old when my dad took me to the old ABC Regal cinema in Chester (now a Costa Coffee and Primark!) to watch Disney's version, Mickey's Christmas Carol. Other generations will favour The Muppets Christmas Carol, or newer generations will be familiar with Jim Carey's incarnation, but despite watching the films, or theatre productions, how many people still sit down and read the actual words of Charles Dickens? 

Bah! Humbug!

The tale commences on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge is in his counting house, counting out his money. His clerk Bob Cratchit is shivering in the cold office because Scrooge refuses to pay for coal for the fire. Scrooges nephew pops in to invite his uncle to his Christmas party, and two men ask Scrooge for a charitable donation, but Scrooge responds to both with a hostile retort.

As the night draws in and Scrooge heads for bed, he is visited by an apparition of his dead work partner Jacob Marley. Marley informs Scrooge that due his greedy and self-absorbed lifestyle, he is condemned to roam the earth for eternity. He tells Scrooge he has come to help save him from the same fate. He warns Scrooge that three ghosts will visit him over the next three nights, and no sooner has Scrooge fallen asleep, than he is woken by the fist of his visitors. 

The Ghost of Christmas Past descends and makes Scrooge revisit his past, to a time of childlike happiness, his school days, his apprenticeship and his engagement. The next evening Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a trip through London, to Bob Cratchit's house where the family is gathered together making the most of what little they have. He is then whisked to his nephews house where fun and frivolity abounds. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is Scrooge's final visitor, and Scrooge is witness to a dead, unnamed man. He watches a poor couple in celebratory mood that the man is dead. He sees personal effects being traded for cash with no thought for any sentimental value. He then finds himself in a graveyard, and the tombstone reads "Scrooge". 

Shocked at the way his life has played out, Scrooge desires redemption. He pleads with the spirit to change the course of his life. Scrooge then wakes up and decides he must turn over a new leaf. He sends a turkey to the Cratchit's so that they have a proper Christmas dinner, and extends the hand of friendship to his nephew, turning up at the Christmas party to the surprise of family and guests. As the years go by, Scrooge is a reformed character, sharing his wealth with those less fortunate, and sparing a kind word and thought for those around him.

>Dickens may have written the novel in 1843, yet over 170 years later, the novel is still seen as what the true meaning of Christmas is all about, and it can still make you stop and think about the less fortunate. The people who for whatever reason end up sleeping on the freezing cold streets, women's refuges, children's homes, the list is seemingly endless. 

They think it's all is now!

And so here ends my 2016 Classic Reading Challenge in aid of Box Clever Theatre Company.

I hope you've enjoyed reading my take on the novels I've chosen. As an avid reader, I actually thought this would be an easy challenge, but it's been far from it. To pick up a book and read it for enjoyment is one thing, to pick up a book knowing that you have to read it with the intention of writing about it is something different.

Books are often more complex when you start delving into what has been written. Why has the author said this? Why have they focused on that? Picking up on the subtle nuances on what is written is an artform in itself; it is very easy to miss an important passage because you're trying to speed read the book, or you're just tired when you've picked the book up at bedtime to get through a couple more chapters. These missing passages can totally transform your interpretation of the book.

We all have different life experiences which can cloud our judgement. One person's background will lead them to one viewpoint, someone else will see something entirely different. Does this make one person right and the other wrong? I don't think so. I have tried to pick a variety of books for this challenge, some I would normally choose, and some I wouldn't. This challenge has certainly been an education for me and made me want to read more by the various authors I have chosen.

My "twelve" entries in this blog are my reasons for reading these books. I have enjoyed them, but I haven't studied any of the books in depth. If I had the time and inclination I would read the books several times, and pull apart in minute detail some of the more pertinent passages. The blog entry would go on forever, and the original enjoyment of the book would be lost by writing and rewriting my arguments and points of view, (obviously backed up by relevant passages and quotations!!!) So I have just skimmed the surface of each of these books.  I hope what I've written makes you want to pick the books up and read them for yourselves. Some books you will like, some you may hate, but that is the joy of reading, challenging yourself to try something different, and to come to your own conclusions.

2016 Sponsored Classics Challenge for Box Clever Theatre

12 months, "12" books, "12" reviews  

January The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
February Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
March Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut
April 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
May The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dostoyevsky
June Flarepath, While the Sun Shines, The Deep Blue Sea, The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Harlequinade, Separate Tables, In Praise of Love and Before Dawn by Terence Rattigan.
July Three Plays ( Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba) by Frederico Garcia Lorca
August Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
September The Cuckoo's Calling, The Silkworm & Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith
October Tarka the Otter by Henry Williamson
November The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
December A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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Wednesday, 11 January 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Box Clever Challenge - November)

When I visited Bath earlier in the year, I came across a book by Christopher Frayling - "Inside The Bloody Chamber on Angela Carter, the Gothic, and other weird tales." The book is a memoir about the literary friendship Frayling had with the late author Angela Carter. It focuses on the conversations and ideas the two of them would throw about until the early hours of the morning, the research he carried out about The Vampyre in literature, and some of his articles and essays on the various aspects of the "Gothic."

Whilst reading his book, I realised that I had not read or watched many of the books and films Frayling mentioned and I thought that I needed to rectify that. Carter sounded like an inspirational and interesting woman, and at some point I need to read her work, but as I went through the book, the chapter entitled Nothing But a Hound Dog made me think about November's book was a classic novel I hadn't read, but one that I really should.

Sherlock Holmes...the great detective

One of my memories relating to childhood was watching The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes with my mum. It was a show on Granada TV starring Jeremy Brett and David Burke, and in our house it was watched on a black and white TV! I loved that show, Brett and Burke were the perfect double act; it wasn't quite the same when David Burke was replaced by Edward Hardwicke, but it was still, for me, the ubiquitous take on Sherlock Holmes. People all around the world remember the series with such fond affection. Nowadays, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch has given the super sleuth a fresh face, but whilst reading Frayling's book I realised that whilst I really loved Holmes and Watson, I'd never once read any of the books.  I have sitting on my bookshelf The Complete Works of Sherlock Holmes it was about time I dusted it down and started reading.

I therefore decided that having read Frayling's notes about The Hound of the Baskervilles, I would choose that book as the "classic" from my anthology for my reading challenge. (I must now ensure I find some time to read the rest of the stories in my book!)

They were the footprints of a giant hound

The Hound of the Baskervilles was originally produced for a run of The Strand Magazine. In a letter to the editor, the author Arthur Conan Doyle said "I have the idea for a real creeper for the "Strand". It would run, I think, to not less than 40,000 words."

The tale starts with a walking cane left in the office of 221b Baker Street. Watson is amazed by Holmes' powers of observation as he solves the clues and advises Watson that they will be visited by James Mortimer, the owner of the said cane.

Mortimer appears and introduces the reader to the legend and folklore surrounding a Devonshire landowning family. Sir Charles Baskerville has been found dead, seemingly of a heart attack, however, Dr James Mortimer is convinced that it is supernatural proceedings which have killed his best friend. Mortimer explains that Hugo Baskerville had imprisoned a young woman on his Devonshire estate, but on one night, as he pursued her on the moors he was attacked by "a hound from hell." From then on, the Baskerville family were cursed, forever plagued by a mysterious and terrifying black hound. Following the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, his heir arrives ready to take up his rightful position on the family estate, however, he has already received a note which warns him to stay away. Once he arrives in London, it seems that he is being followed, and so Sherlock Holmes is called upon to solve what is going on.

Holmes is too busy to take on the case, and so he sends his loyal companion Dr Watson to Devon to find out what is going on and to report back to him what he finds out. Watson is normally the narrator of the Holmes tales, writing up the case notes at the end of every tale for the Sherlock Holmes Casebook. It is Holmes' job to do the sleuthing! In this novel however, Watson is not just retelling a story, he is also central to it, writing letters and journals, giving the story a more "in the moment" appeal. It reminded me of another Gothic tale, that of Dracula, and the notebooks of Dr John Seward. (What is it with Dr's and notebooks?!)

Dartmoor steals the show

The most interesting aspect of this Sherlock Holmes story, is that Holmes doesn't appear in much of the tale. Rather than Holmes dominating the story, Dartmoor is the star of the piece. The descriptions of the eerie landscape make you feel afraid for anyone out on the moor! Dartmoor gives the tale a vivid and Gothic atmosphere, you are seduced into turning the page to find out more. This is what probably gives the book its timeless appeal and makes it a favourite story for filmmakers, it is a great setting for a mystery, with such scope for other incidental story lines running throughout the piece.

The tale is really Dr Watson's adventure and Holmes just arrives to finish the tale off. From the very start, when Watson arrives he is confronted When Watson arrives on Dartmoor he is confronted by a search for an escaped convict. Everyone becomes a suspect, their strange behaviour slowly making sense as Watson unravels various clues. For the reader, there is this string of red herrings, what do you believe, what do you ignore? Holmes of course is able to piece together the clues from Watson's communications, and there is a dramatic climax before Watson can finally stamp the case CLOSED!

This is an enthralling and chilling book, and one not to be missed.

If you wish to donate to Box Clever Theatre Company, please click on the link

Monday, 9 January 2017

Happy New Year! Reflecting on Operation Smile Carols, & Blood Wedding and The Little Matchgirl Theatre.

Dear Blog,

I've been very remiss and ignored you for a couple of months. It doesn't seem that long, but I've checked, and I haven't posted anything since October! It seems I've been too busy doing and not enough writing about it. Oh well!!!

A New Year is a good time to reflect, so let's see what's been going on in the last couple of months that I've been too busy to tell you about, before we start getting busy with 2017.


I've been very busy at work. I agreed to make a birthday dress for my friend (I have four weeks to get it done) and I want to create a Tom Burke Calendar. I need 12 drawings, I have previously drawn 6 pictures that I like (I'm very critical of a lot of my earlier work) and so I need to create 6 more drawings that I'm happy with. Why am I doing this to myself? (Especially when I know I have very little spare time!!) So despite becoming sleep deprived, I start sketching ideas in my head for a dress to discuss with Kate (my friend), and on paper I start creating new Tom Burke scribbles. Some of the pictures were a stylistic departure for me, so in a mass panic I sent them all to another friend for her critical analysis. I knew if they were rubbish she'd tell me straight, and that was what I needed. I need to feel that someone is being genuinely honest about my work, not saying nice things to feed my ego, but to convince me my work is credible.  Fortunately her responses showed she had looked at them properly and considered each one on its own merit - and so I had 12 drawings that I felt were good enough to be displayed together. My first ever calendar had been created! (click below to view/buy)


1st December and time to start thinking about Christmas, and what better way to think about the season that the annual Carols by Candlelight Service in London, organised by the charity Operation Smile UK. It is a joyous occasion, even for me who is not overly religious. The evening started when I made my way with a few friends from the Days Inn, across Hyde Park towards the Grosvenor Chapel in Mayfair. I was amazed to see a small menage in the park with three ladies on horseback practicing their flatwork, eagerly turning circles and figures of eight and putting their horses through their paces. We met more friends at a pub for a quick pint of Doombar, and because there was nowhere to sit, we moved to a restaurant next door for a quick bite to eat before the carol concert.

As we gathered outside the church, platters of mince pies were handed round, and then we were offered Whiskey Macs, and if you were lucky you managed to blag some port too! As we entered the church we were handed a candle, and as the service started the candles were lit and the church became bathed in a golden glow of tiny flickering lights. As always, the service was about the children, and it is always a joy to listen to the children's choir, and to hear all about the astonishing work that Operation Smile carries out. Each time I hear about their work I find out something new. I didn't realise that every operation is filmed and reviewed, and if the doctor is not deemed up to scratch, s/he is removed from their register of surgeons. It made me comprehend how much work is done in addition to the operations, and that the money donated is spent wisely and the treatment offered is of the highest quality. It is edifying to know how the lives of so many children abroad can be transformed by a simple low cost operation.

After the service we headed off to a reception at the University Women's Club, Mayfair, for canapes, wine and a chat. It was a wonderful opportunity to speak to people from the charity, and to gather with friends sharing the season of goodwill. It is something that has now become an annual event, Christmas just wouldn't be the same without it.

Of course, even though I was in London, I managed to miss all the shop window displays, Oxford Street, Harrods, Selfridges, the whole lot. No. The next day for me meant a quick stop at Paddington Station to say hello to the little bear from darkest Peru, and then onto Waterloo to my hotel for the night. How nice it felt to be back "home." There is something comforting about the South Bank, I feel happy and relaxed there, unlike the North side where it seems too busy and frenetic.

The Little Matchgirl

So having taken a walk by the Thames, and taken a detour into the heart of London to grab a quick pint of Doombar in The Tottenham (for those familiar with the Cormoran Strike novels, you'll know why I had to have a pint in there!) it was off to The Sam Wannamaker Playhouse to watch The Little Matchgirl and other happier tales.  This was a superb piece of theatre and the puppet of the Little Matchgirl really did mesmerise the audience. She made you think about those less fortunate than yourself; those people on the streets trying their best to get by night after night in the freezing cold and how a little kindness can give hope to someone.

Blood Wedding

The next day I had enough time to squeeze in a matinee of Blood Wedding by Feredrico Garcia Lorca  The Cervantes is a tiny theatre tucked away in a railway arch, and the play was performed in both English, and the original Spanish of the playwright. Thankfully it was performed in English on the day I went! Then it was goodbye London, hello "operation birthday dress" as the next day Kate was arriving for her final dress fitting!

A Stitch in Time!

I kept a brave face on as we nipped and tucked Kate's dress, but something just wasn't right. The next weekend (yes her birthday!) I realised what was wrong and took the entire dress apart, cut new panels for the front and lined the whole thing. It was lacking structure, but those simple tweaks gave the dress the shape and structure it needed without it being too wide and fussy like a Disney princess dress! In a mass panic, hours before the party I was still hand sewing the hem of the dress, but calmly messaging Kate to say that all was in hand and not to panic. Lunchtime, dress is finally finished, boxed, and I jump into the shower and 20 minutes later I'm hurtling towards Manchester praying for no traffic, and no policemen on the motorway! I arrived more or less when I said I would (before I'd decided to take the dress apart and start again!) so all was well, and a good night had by all. First time I've ever been introduced to people as "this is Sioux, my designer!"

(And of course, I couldn't go to a party without having made a little white dress for myself too!)

So, just a little matter of decorating the house, buying presents and delivering them all! Next year I'm getting organised, I'm doing my shopping in June!