Paul Murray’s “Skippy Dies”

There is no mystery regarding the fate of the main character in Paul Murray’s second novel, Skippy Dies. Skippy (Daniel Juster to his parents), is a 14 year-old dreamer, MMRPG addict and boarder at Seabrook College for Boys, a private Catholic boarding school in Dublin. Inside the first 5 pages of the book, Skippy, er, dies.

Having first described (in lurid, technicolor detail) the death scene of the young teenager, the rest of Skippy Dies is structured around the back-story and consequences of Skippy’s spectacular demise.

For a 600+ page post-modern comic novel, which leaps between multiple narrators and encompasses multiverse theory, early 20th century esotericism, video games, the Decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland, teenage love, the 2008 financial crisis and the poetry of Robert Graves, Skippy Dies hangs together remarkably well.

I found it, by moments, deeply funny, and despite the disjointed narrative, you grow to deeply care for the characters.

Ruprecht van Doren, for example, is a true 21st Century original: Skippy’s obese room-mate and Seabrook’s resident genius, he spends his days munching through doughnuts, building devices in the school basement for multi-dimensional travel and dreaming of the day when he will be taken up unto Stanford to work alongside the World-Famous Physicist Hideo Tamashi.

Father Green, the school’s French teacher, is in search of some kind of redemption for past sins – despite his formidable classroom reputation – while Howard, (the principal adult voice in the novel), is a failed stockbroker who tries to teach history to uninterested adolescents while struggling with his own twentysomething mid-life crisis.

Paul Murray deserves particular respect for finding authentic voices for his teenage characters. He manages to illustrate their worldview – distracted, hormonal and video-and-internet-infused – without ever slipping up. The dialogue is never overwritten. His teenagers are by turns cruel, confused and cocksure, and never sound fake.

Likewise, the occasional transition into second-person narrative – a risky device at the best of times – feels natural and unforced, and works well to expresses that certain self-centredness that is perhaps a necessary part of adolescence.

Skippy Dies is Irish, ironic, immensely good fun, and contains the Best High School Halloween Disco Scene in the History of Literature. A novel on this scale could have easily choked on its own pink frosting, but this book works well. Really, really well.

Highly recommended are Edward Champion’s two podcast interviews with Paul Murray on the Bat Segundo Show:

Paul Murray Part I

Paul Murray Part II

The Silent Traveller in Oxford

In Oxford last week, I spent time browsing second-hand books on the third floor of Blackwells. The rest of the store is slick and modern, but the top level of Blackwells, with views onto the quads of Trinity College, has a creaky wooden floor and that hint of dust and mildew that makes it somehow an isolated eyrie of an older Oxonian age.

Lapwings Over Merton Field – Chiang Yee

One book immediately caught my eye – a 1946 edition of The Silent Traveller in Oxford. It was written by the Chinese artist and author Chiang Yee in 1942 while he was living in Oxford, after his flat in the East End of London was destroyed in the Blitz. As a registered “alien”, Chiang Yee couldn’t leave Britain in wartime, and so took rooms in Southmoor Road in Jericho.

First published in 1944, Chiang Yee’s account of 1940s Oxford is particularly interesting for me. My father was born in Oxford during the war: my grandparents worked for the Food Ministry, and had their London offices relocated to Oxford, out of harms way. So thanks to Goering’s bombers, Dad was born an Oxonian.

(Oxford was not targeted by the Luftwaffe during WW2 for a number of possibly apocryphal reasons. The one I like best recounts that many high-ranking Luftwaffe officers were German aristocrats who had studied at Oxford and could not bear the idea of bombs raining down on the Turf Tavern.)

From a Railway Bridge Near Lake Street – Chiang Yee

Chiang Yee was (a little like me) an accidental expatriate in Oxford. The “foreign-ness” of his eye is reflected in his colour plates and ink sketches that accompany the text. The landmarks and characters are all in place, but somehow Chiang’s Chinese art transforms familiar views of the city into something more ancient and timeless.

The blackout curtains and ration-books are gone, but today’s Oxford seems little different to the city described by Chiang Yee 65 years ago . In the 21st Century, peacocks still strut on the roof of the Trout Inn, crowds still line Magdalen Bridge on May Morning, and the 8.05 “down train” to Paddington is still full of be-suited commuters and the occasional tweedy academic departing for an errand in London.

Despite the hardship and tension of the period, Chiang’s Oxford is a harbour of peace and reflection. The war is barely mentioned – the undergraduate population is depleted by conscription, a bomber wheels lazily over Port Meadow, and the Cockney accents of Blitz evacuees mix with shopkeepers’ Oxfordshire burr on Cornmarket. But Chiang’s attention is drawn more to the landscape, nature and cityscape.

Chiang’s eye for detail and contemplation is quite disarming. His writing captures perfectly the shift of seasons against the colleges’ grey stone. Several paragraphs are spent describing the facial expressions of a duck and the delicate dance of crocuses in the wind. Verses from Li P’o, Longfellow and Shelley enter his consciousness while wandering up the banks of the Isis towards The Perch.

Peacocks at Trout Inn – Chiang Yee

I have read many excellent books about Oxford (Jan Morris’ Oxford is still the essential primer). But Chiang Yee’s is definitely the most charming: it’s available in a 2003 reprint, but I think the 1940s Methuen  editions (“printed in complete confirmity with the authorized economy standards” as stated the frontispiece) are quite hard to come by now. This was a lucky find!


Cricket at Van Cortland Park in the Bronx (Image: kptyson)

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland has been described as a ‘great American novel’.  I’m not quite sure Netherland carries the  thematic weight to grant it such immortality. But in its essential retelling of the story of an outsider’s insider whose pursuit of a Manhattan Dream is rendered hollow by corruption, Joseph O’Neill’s novel bears comparison to The Great Gatsby (I’m pretty chuffed I spotted the parallels before I read James Wood’s review in The New Yorker).

O’Neill’s Gatsby is Chuck Ramsikoon, a lyrically gifted Trinidadian-Indian whose grand scheme is to build a cricket stadium – “Bald Eagle Field” – in New York.  It is his friendship with the narrator, Dutch-born oil industry analyst Hans van den Broek, that drives the novel.  Instead of jazz-age Long Island, we find ourselves in a present day New York of immigrants – peopled by Indian bankers, Ukrainian real estate agents, Pakistani restauranteurs and Turkish angels.

Among this population of expatriated characters, cricket is a perfect metaphor for the lives of outsiders in America, played out on the boundaries of society. As Chuck says early in the novel: “You want a tast of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of a cricketer. Put on white to feel black.

Image: caribb

The book is a skilfully written travelogue of linked memories, leaping from pre-Credit Crunch London to post-9/11 New York; from beach holidays in Kerala to childhood in well-ordered suburbs of The Hague. Jumps of place and time occur suddenly inside chapters and within paragraphs and sentences, and yet not once does the reader get lost. Everything hangs together.

The thing that prevents Netherland being a great novel is the numb self-obsession of the first person narrator. Although you see everything through his eyes and recollections, Hans as a person remains (for me) too cold and distant to feel real.  (Although O’Neill’s depiction of the often limpid life of the bachelor abroad is accurate enough !)

Netherland is undoubtedly a novel of its time: the touchstone moments of the pre-Obama age (the fall of the twin towers, the invasion of Iraq and the Indian Ocean tsunami)  are all present, exerting influence without ever being overplayed.  If humanity survives in good enough shape to produce literary critics in 50 years time, it may well be to Netherland that these critics turn to work out what the heck we were all thinking in the first decade of the 21st century.

Image: catface3

La France, Redécouverte

The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb,
Picador, 2007 [Buy]

Gorges du Tarn

The Gorges du Tarn (Photo: Patrick Giraud)

The Gorges du Tarn in southern France are the largest canyon system in Europe, up to 500 metres deep and up to 1500 metres wide, cutting through the heart of the Cévennes. Yet the most amazing fact about this rather large piece of geology is that it was entirely unknown to the French government until 1905.

Until the 19th Century, vast expanses of France remained unexplored, inhabited by a peasant population strongly attached to their local pays, speaking myriad dialects and leading lives mostly independent of the elite minority ruling from Paris.

Graham Robb’s The Discovery of France describes how modern France began to coalesce into a coherent geographical, political and economic unit following the French Revolution. The story told by Robb is necessarily circuitous and complex, with many diversions into curious sub-plots that will suprise most Anglo-Saxon readers, (and probably many French readers too).

Robb is concerned to evoke the experience of the ‘everyday’ French citizen outside Paris, and illustrate how the new France (whether Napoleonic Empire or paternal République) not only brought enormous progress but also erased many lines of custom, territory and language that could be traced back 2 millenia to the time of the Roman Empire.

Shepherds on stilts in the Landes, southwest France

The Industrial Revolution arrived late in France, and witchcraft and Catholicism cohabited in the rural hinterland well into the late 19th century. In many places the village priest (always an outsider) was tolerated only because he was the sole person in the district who could read  – or speak – French.

During this slow emergence into the modern world, a majority of French citizens spoke languages other than French – including hundreds of dialects of Breton, Basque, Franco-Provençal, Alsatian and Occitan.  The introduction of a universal national education system in the mid-1800s was as much concerned with imposing the ‘civilised’ language of Paris on the population and elminating local patois as it was about implementing the republican ideals of equal opportunity.

The advance towards a unified nation occured in fits and starts, with many of the supposed agents of “progress” actually proving counter-productive. For example the building of new national roads and railways promoted growth of towns along their route, but actually served to impoverish and further isolate some regions, such as the Auvergne, which happened to be bypassed by the grand transport schemes launched from Paris.

Illustration from Francois Guizot’s Histoire de la civilisation en France (1830)

It is perhaps appropriate that it should be an English author who writes this story, for the English have for a long time had a complicated love affair with France. In fact many of the best source texts for descriptions of French landscape and society in the 18th and 19th centuries come from English explorers and writers.

Graham Robb accomplished his own exploration of France by bicycle, and he followed up his travels with 4 years of research. Despite 30+ pages of footnotes, the book remains incredibly readable.  As a specialist in 19th century French literature, Robb has written biographies of Victor Hugo, Rimbaud and Balzac (and wrote his Oxford doctorate in the field), but his writing is never laden by excessively academic concerns.

In some ways the entire book resembles a leisurely but thoughtful bicycle journey. Plenty of scope is allowed for detours to admire incidental details or episodes. Anecdotes and sideways leaps into ethnography, linguistics and cartography add spice to Robb’s storytelling. History is rarely linear, and when presented like this, it’s invariably fascinating.

After reading The Discovery of France, I was left feeling just slightly jealous, because Graham Robb has pretty much written exactly the sort of book that I’d love to write if I had the talent, time and brains.

Bilingual French/Breton road signs in Vannes

Blood River

Depiano – Gouvernement ya Congo
From Ngoma: Souvenir ya l’Indépendance [Buy]

Michael K. Nichols/National Geographic

Just finished Blood River by Tim Butcher – the story of his 2004 journey down the Congo River, retracing Stanley‘s 19th century expedition from Lake Tanganyika to the Atlantic.

Viewed from the developed world, Africa seems to have “trendy” crises, while other humanitarian disasters languish in obscurity and ignorance. The crisis of the present moment seems to be Darfur. In the 1980s it was Ethiopia. Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Somalia have sparked short-lived interest the western media, but these brief bursts of attention offer little lasting help to the people and nations concerned.

Africa’s problems are writ large in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Few people know (and I didn’t until I read this book) that the deadliest conflict since WW2 ended just 5 years ago – the Second Congo War killed 5.4 million between 1998 and 2003 through violence, disease and starvation. Butcher’s journey took place just a year after the war ended.


So Blood River is first of all classic story of adventurous (read: dangerous) travel. Given the war and steadily crumbling infrastructure of the Congo basin, Tim Butcher was very likely the first person to complete the trek overland across the DRC from East to West for a decade. Far more people have climbed Everest or reached the North Pole by foot in that time.

If Butcher had made his journey in the 1950s, it would have been a relatively comfortable trip via a network of riverboats and trains built by the Belgian colonial régime. But today the roads, railways and riverboats have virtually vanished. Kisangani, a city of half a million people is essentially cut off in middle of the rainforest, reliant on an airbridge and jungle footpaths for transport to the outside world.

Tim Butcher/Daily Telegraph

Butcher’s book also provides a good introduction to the often tragic history of the Congo, from Stanley’s barnstorming expedition, via rampant stripping of wealth and human lives by the Belgians and President Mobutu Sese Seko, through to the ethnic fighting and interference by neighbouring states that has marred the last decade.

Despite recent national elections and the presence of a UN mission, the quiet desperation continues for the DRC’s 60 million people, largely hidden from the eyes of the world. Average life expectancy is just 48, and while we buy iPods and surf the web, Congolese children are mining coltan by hand to support our technology habit.

Blood River pricked my conscience and made me want to learn more about this part of the world. Further excerpts and photos from the book are on the Daily Telegraph website.

Note on the music:
I discovered this track thanks to matt at benn loxo. It’s off a compilation of Congolese pop recorded in the early days of independence, before the nation imploded. The song mentions in respectful terms some of the early political leaders of the country, including President Joseph Kasa-Vubu, but not the first Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was arrested, executed and buried in the jungle in an operation apparently involving Belgian troops and the CIA.

A Voice in a Landscape

Graham Brazier – Friend (words by Hone Tuwhare)
From Tuwhare [Buy]

Hone Tuwhare
Hone Tuwhare with Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2003

It seems that everyone back home is worried about a summer shark epidemic, and meanwhile New Zealand is losing all its national treasures at once – last week it was Sir Ed, this week it’s Hone Tuwhare, (1922-2008) one of our most eminent poets.

It’s interesting to notice that Tuwhare’s life spanned the full stretch of our islands: a Ngapuhi son born in Kaikohe in the north of the North Island, he spent his final years in the remote deep south of the Catlins. Tuwhare’s poems always seem to me to place humans and their emotions at their centre, playing out stories of family and relationships in a landscape that could only be New Zealand.

In 2005 a collection of New Zealand musicians set some of Tuwhare’s poems to music, released on the album Tuwhare. Graham Brazier‘s acoustic version of Friend is a good example. It’s interesting to compare Brazier’s version to the natural, unaffected way Hone Tuwhare himself reads the poem (starting at 1’27 in the video below).

Not-so-Dark Material

Daniel Craig Dakota Blue Williams

The Golden Compass tries valiantly to work as a film, but doesn’t quite make the grade. It has to pack a lot of action into a family Christmas feature, and so we are not allowed to linger over any particular aspect.

In its haste to recreate the broad sweep of Philip Pullman‘s novel, the narrative dashes breakneck from Oxford to London to Norway to Svalbard, via airships, horseless carriages, gypsy paddlesteamers and the back of a talking polar bear.

There is little time to contemplate the themes of the trilogy, let alone the magnificence and strangeness of Lyra’s parallel universe. This is a pity, because it is thematic and inter-textual depth, coupled with extraordinary leaps of Pullman’s imagination, that make the books such a joy.

The actors are pretty good, and make a fair fist of a spartan script. Nicole Kidman‘s Mrs Coulter is magnificent in gold lamé, slinky and seductive, although at times her charm is so oily that it seems incredible that anyone could ever trust her with responsibilities at the General Oblation Board.

Sam Elliott is pitch-perfect as Lee Scoresby, the six-shooter packing, Twain-esque balloonist (apparently Samuel L. Jackson was suggested for this role… now THAT would have been something to see!).


Even Christopher Lee drops by to play Saruman- oh sorry, Count Dooku – or some other slightly anonymous evil dude lurking in the corridors of power. I was left wondering if the Magisterium was trying to cut its budget by subcontracting villains from the Sith and subletting office space in the tower at Isengard.

But Dakota Blue Richards manages to carry the film. Her Lyra seems to provide a perfect mix of stubborness, curiosity and vulnerability that allows the rest of the Pullman universe to revolve. If they do film The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, one wonders how they will find a young male actor to match her in the equally demanding role of Will Parry.

The Oxford scenes were fun to watch, simply for all the location spotting. The kids get to run across parts of Christ Church meadow that are closed to the public in our universe. The fictional Jordan College is an interesting amalgam of Exeter (Pullman’s old college), Queen’s and Christ ChurchCardinal Wolsey proving his prescience by building Tom Quad large enough to allow the docking of airships, even if the fountain of Mercury (made famous in Brideshead Revisited) had to be removed.

Christ Church

So overall, it’s a fun movie to watch, although I’m not sure how much you’d understand if you haven’t read the books. We’re left with a film that looks magnificent, but provides little more that a thumbnail sketch of the original story, with a few set-piece action scenes to tie it all together. Not disappointed, just moderately let down.