Monday, 25 January 2010

Rabbie Burns Night

What is it about the English that when they have even an ounce of Scottish blood they like to boast about it. And, of course, it gives them an excuse to take part in any Robert Burns' evening going. I can’t talk, I’m as guilty as the next ‘One Quarter Scottish’ Angle. Perhaps it’s just that we like any excuse for a party. And, let’s face it, the Scots know how to enjoy a dram or two.

But to hear a true blue Scot read out ‘wee sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie’, in that wonderful pure lilting brogue is so romantic and evocative of a period now gone. It’s like the first time you hear Shakespeare acted and spoken properly. Suddenly everything makes sense. Years of studying the bard at school can often put a person off for life.

Shakespeare is so wooden, it’s so meaningless, you often hear school children say. But take them to a first class performance of a Shakespeare play and you will hear the laugh out loud, watching it all with rapt attentive faces as they have never done in class. It’s the nuances, the breaths taken in the correct places and the humour that the actors manage to imbue it with.

Watch amateurs enact Shakespeare, then watch a professional troupe - it is often as different as chalk from cheese. The first – no matter how polished - can be stilted, the second lively and funny, bawdy and deep. I personally don’t like Shakespeare on television or the radio – I think his plays are made for the live stage. Only there do you get that wonderful feeling of being part of it, which is how the plays were intended.

Listening to the poems of Robert Burns can be much the same: unintelligible to the English ear. In To A Mouse Burns is assuring the terrified little field mouse that he means him no harm, and goes on to apologise to the mouse for all the harm man does and the sad state of his own life.
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,
O, what panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattie!

But translate it and it loses it’s charm completely. Difficult to follow or not, just one phrase from this sad and moving verse, has been quoted by many of us at some stage, without us even knowing it came from this poem.
But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Another equally well known poem of Burns, Address to A Haggis, loses all when Anglicised. The Haggis, to Burns, was a symbolic part of Scottish culture. A student of politics or history can enlarge on all the reasons why this was so important to Burns – and all Scots – at the time. But for the rest of us we simply enjoy the dialect, vivid language and humour of the poem.
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftan o’ the pudding-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my arm.

So here’s to Robert Burns on his special night and all of you too, Slanj; Lang may yer lum reek!


Tuesday, 12 January 2010

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith

Come Christmas time, when the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even, what I wanted was something to read that was easy on the senses. The ground was covered with a blanket of snow. I fancied cuddling up under my own little eider and snuggling down with a gentle read.

Last year there was a list of the country’s favourite books published in the newspaper. The great and the good listed theirs. It’s always satisfying to have your own taste reinforced and quite forgivable to feel just an eensy bit smug that you have read many of the classics chosen. But it’s also thoroughly shocking to find that there are just as many gaping holes in your reading.

Now I’m not about to confess to all those titles I did not recognize, had not read or have not been able to conquer. It is a list that could be embarrassing. But I will admit to feeling a bit stupid that I had not read a novel so many cited as their favourite. How come I never read I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith? It was one of the books that all age groups enthused about as their absolutely favourite read.

The books we’ve read lately in the Book Group have featured a little heavily on death and destruction. Either that or Islamic angst. We’re all feeling a bit war weary and have decided we should choose a few titles that are a little lighter, a bit more uplifting. So I suggested to a few groupies at our Christmas bash that perhaps I would do I Capture the Castle.

One thought it a great idea (she hasn’t read it either - I felt better - she’s a brain) another dismissed it as a children’s book. A third was lukewarm and wondered if there would be enough to discuss. Perhaps my idea was a non-starter, I’d choose a classic instead. As usual.

Then came the snow. I trawled through my bookshelves and there was a copy - pristine, unopened, brand new – of Dodie Smith’s classic. That’s what the list called it, a modern classic. Somebody (it must have been last Christmas) had obviously thought I should like it. It might not be Book Group material but only a few pages read on the hoof convinced me that it was just what I needed to go to bed with (so undemanding, a book).

I won’t bother to give you the story. There must be hundreds of reviews of it or possibly you have all read it (all except me!). It is an impossible and implausible story anyway. But so what. I don’t think Dodie expected her readers to believe it. The protagonist, Cassandra, is so charming she is a pleasure to get to know as she gets to know herself. And mature: seventeen going on thirty-seven.

Most of the other characters are less believable. Some totally unbelievable. But I can see why optimistic young (and not so young) girls like it – everything about it is so sweetly romantic from the unrequited love to the Bohemian family who live in the sublime ruined castle.

And it is a very easy read. Now, this is not a criticism. Quite the contrary. It is very difficult to tell a tale simply but well. The prose is good – written in 1948, says it all – and without great dramatic effects the reader still wants to carry on reading. Now that is a skill. Finally, there is humour, just a little pathos and the ending is not as corny as one expects.

In short, I enjoyed it. It was like having a soothing massage. Pleasing, light and totally undemanding. Well enough written not to injure the senses of the literary snob, but not so soppy as to make any but the most cynical groan. I couldn’t begin to call it my favourite novel – I like a little more depth and challenge and preferably a bit of drama in my choice of reading material.

But it’s the perfect holiday paperback or thing to read after one has been ill. So when the snow outside demands you stay inside, tuck up warm and chill out with a cocoa, then throw into the mix a copy of I Capture the Castle. You may not be excited, but you won't be sorry.


PS Finishing this I googled I Capture the Castle and yes, there are hundreds of reviews. So I was the only person never to have read it!! If you want to find out about the plot just read them.