Friday, 31 July 2009

Are We There Yet? - Charlie Butler


The journey is perhaps the most obvious of all "Writing is like..." metaphors. But summer is upon us, and I can’t help but remember that a full 78% of the children’s books I read in the 1960s and ‘70s began with a train arriving at a holiday destination and the prospect of Adventure. Now, at a time when recession is sending millions back to the romance of buckets, spades and soggy chips, I see no reason to refuse the homely embrace of this cliché. To make things interesting, however, I have arranged things in the style of a commonplace book, and there are points – but alas, no prizes – for identifying the quotations.

Grand Potential Station

“Behind them, the big diesel locomotive hooted like a giant owl, and the train began to move out.”

This is where which we climb aboard, cradling our little bundle of ideas. We are somewhat dazed, and unsure of our precise route or destination. It’s exciting all the same, for we have an open ticket, and ANYTHING could happen. We have brought freshly-laundered hankies, but as yet they are for waving, not drowning.

“Like many others who have lived long in a great capital, she had strong feelings about the various railway termini. They are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return. In Paddington all Cornwall is latent and the remoter west; down the inclines of Liverpool Street lie fenlands and the illimitable Broads; Scotland is through the pylons of Euston; Wessex behind the poised chaos of Waterloo.


Blocks Hill

Oh dear. The train has ground to a halt in the middle of a tunnel. There is nothing on either side but slimy bricks. An electronic voice flickers into life, and we suspect the speaker of being a Microsoft paperclip: “Apologies for the delay. This is due to signalling problems/mechanical breakdown/an unforeseen lack of track. We will be underway as soon as these issues have been resolved. Meanwhile the buffet continues to serve a full range of hot and cold snacks, Facebook quizzes and daytime television. Feel free to stare at your window and pretend you’re waiting for inspiration.”

We wonder dismally whether we are writing on the wrong sort of leaves, but eventually the train shunts backward out of the tunnel, and takes off along a different route.

“He doesn't mind the rain now, because he knows that the best way to keep his paint nice is not to run into tunnels, but to ask his Driver to rub him down when the day's work is over.

Wise words indeed!

Editing Junction: All Change

“The first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt.”

Ah yes, the editing bit. I rather enjoy it, in a masochistic way. In fact I can become quite reckless in striking out perfectly good material. A fanatic gleam enters my eye. The book begins to look worried, and shifts further along the seat.


“It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well.”

At last my blood lust is quenched and we are friends again. We set off for the next station, which is far more pleasant.

Fiddler’s Halt

Here is a charming Arcadia, where we stop a while and frolic. The book’s limbs fill out, its hair becomes glossier, its manners more appealing. But we must not linger too long.

"Tho gan Sir Calidore him to advize
Of his first quest, which he had long forlore,
Asham’d to thinke, how he that enterprise,
The which the Faery Queene had long afore
Bequeath’d to him, foreslacked had so sore."

And so we must conclude, remembering that Atropos too is a weaver - and the goddess of Knowing When to Stop, without whose kind despatch publishers' lists and bookshops would lie desolate.

Waiting at the Border


“I am waiting at the border
For the man to give the order.”

The Borders guard is checking my book’s papers. “Name? EPOS record?” He glances suspiciously at the wide-eyed novel before him. Clearly it has nothing to hide: it is an open book. “That all seems to be in order," he admits, and whisks the book away for shelving.

So now we must wave goodbye to our charge, and this time our hankies are frankly sodden. “Go, litel book! Don’t be a stranger!”

Sigh. No need for a return trip: we’ll go on from here. There’s a train to the coast in half an hour, I see.

"The end is where we start from."

9 comments:

Sally Nicholls said...

Dawn Treader for the one about tearing, and one of the Thomas books for the rain and the tunnels? Probably one involving Gordon, but I couldn't give you the title.
I love the quote about terminuses - where's that from?

Charlie Butler said...

Correct, and correct (it's actually the Sad Story of Henry, where he gets bricked up in the tunnel by the *evil* Fat Controller).

I'll reveal the origin of the terminus quote a little later, if no one else spots it first!

Debbie G said...

Lovely post, Charlie! I thought someone would beat me to the Dawn Treader reference - but I know the terminus quote - Howard's End! And "The end is where we start from" is "Little Gidding" :-)

Charlie Butler said...

Thank you! And you are of course correct in all particulars.

Dru Marland said...

Is the destruction of words thing 1984? -I rejected Fahrenheit 451 as thats was a less discriminating destruction. I'd been thinking of Jan Struther as a possible termini author, but she seemed to drive everywhere.

Charlie Butler said...

Hi Dru - Yes, it's Winston Smith's lexicographer friend Syme, enthusing about the latest incarnation of Newspeak.

Katherine Langrish said...

And naturally the Sir Calidore quote is from Spenser's 'Faery Queene', and 'Go litel boke' is Chaucer... can't remember which without looking it up: The Parlement of Fowls? Something early?
Lovely post, Charlie - thoroughly enjoyed it!

Charlie Butler said...

Yes, I couldn't leave out my beloved Spenser! And yes to Chaucer - it's near the end of Troilus and Criseyde.

Ika said...

That's not Chaucer, that's Joanna Russ, you philistine! You've spelled 'little' wrong, though.

(I just found this post, I love it. I only recognized the quotes about editing, which are - not coincidentally - the bleakest ones...)