A Collection of J.L. Carr: What Hetty Did

What Hetty Did, J.L. Carr’s seventh and penultimate novel, was the first to be published through his own Quince Tree Press company. It was published in 1988 in an edition of 2,850 copies. My copy, unnumbered, is signed by Carr, leading me to assume that the entire run was signed. It was Quince Tree Press’ first publication. I saw it in the Manchester Waterstone’s one day that year and was intrigued enough by the set-up (and the limited edition)  to take a punt on it. I assume I remembered Carr’s name from Steeple Sinderby, but at this range I can’t remember for certain.
There are a couple of oddities about this book. One is that, though the cover bears the name J.L. Carr, on the spine the author chose, for the only time, to identify himself as James Carr. The other is that, alone amongst the author’s work, What Hetty Did has an alternate or sub-title: or, Life and Letters.
It’s an apt sub-title since Hetty, the narrator, is a very literary inclined young woman, a tall, long-legged, red-haired, flat-chested eighteen year old who is very intelligent, and given to constant quotation. The thing about Hetty is that, whilst she’s strong on letters, she isn’t that hot on life. Only she doesn’t know that. Hetty has her own ideas, ideas and a voice that render her completely unbelievable as an eighteen year old girl, whilst convincing her of her own innate  and overriding superiority. In twenty-five years, I don’t know quite what to make of this book.
Previous Carr novels have betrayed a very conservative mind-set and an ingrained contempt for the majority of every day people, their ignorance and vulgarity. Hetty is a supposed eighteen year old girl in 1988 or thereabouts but she holds the same opinions. Indeed, Hetty holds practically everybody in contempt for not being as strong as her, or not having the same literary appreciation as her. Even her best friend, Polly Horbling, is treated with a degree of contempt for no more than actually having teenage hormones, and betraying an interest in boys and sexual leanings.
To some extent, Hetty’s attitudes can be seen as a reaction to her life and upbringing. Properly, her name is Ethel Birtwistle (which explains a lot in itself, especially why, once she breaks free, she adopts the surname Beauchamp) and she’s determinedly Ethel at home. Her family is dominated by a seriously unpleasant father, miserable, ignorant, offensive, perpetually angry: a mind so small that the least thought would bang against all sides before it was half-expressed. He’s a rate collector, a miser, hates Hetty for her intelligence and plans to force her into a job on the switchboard at the local Council, rather than allow her to use the brilliant A-level results she gets to go to Cambridge.
Hetty’s mother is worse than a doormat and her younger brother Sonny, who never rises above a name on the page, is an envious sneak. Ethel, or Hetty, is an improbable cuckoo in the nest, and that’s because she isn’t the Birtwistle’s daughter, save by adoption: Mr Birtwistle couldn’t produce children. Sonny’s adopted as well.
So, after learning this, having already come to the point of knowing she has to leave, Hetty heads off to Birmingham, where she was collected from. An improbable but Carr-esque meeting on the train with a man going to Australia for adventure, sees her directed to the boarding house run by the twice-widowed Rose Gilpin-Jones, who gives Hetty a room in return for service round the house.
Later in the book, Hetty brings Polly and her eccentric grandfather, the Major, to stay for the weekend, which ends up with the Major marrying Rose. Later still, Hetty finds out who her birth mother is, by breaking and entering. She approaches her, finds her a stuck-up, reasonably wealthy wife with a husband and two legitimate children, none of whom know. Hetty, who has decided for herself that her being ‘thrown away’ is entirely down to the egregious moral flaws of Wendy, bullies and blackmails her birth mother in a nasty fashion, for money with which to go to Cambridge.
Of course, with complete improbability, she has a volte-face and hands the money back before parting with a tiny cry, and goes on to Cambridge where her Professor turns out to be her unacknowledged birth-father.
The plot, as you can see, is minimal. This is basically a portrait book, set in a world of unpleasant people doing objectionable things, but What Hetty Did extends this to the book’s first person narrator, making this an awkward experience.
Because I don’t know if Hetty is meant to be real, is meant to be taken seriously, as a paragon to be respected, an ideal to be pursued, or if she is an elaborate and ultra-black joke. Given the tenor of Carr’s work going back over a quarter century to A Day in Summer, I suspect the former, but am I falling for a more complex version of Johnny Speight’s Alf Garnett, who was created as a monster to be laughed at and discredited, but who became a totem for those who saw him as justifying and amplifying their narrow and bigoted world-views?
Certainly, I have known people affected by both sides of the adoption issue that Hetty sees in black and white, and these are the last two shades that apply to such a situation, so I can’t feel anything but anger towards her in her angry self-righteousness. But this is only an extreme: Hetty thinks she knows everything, but she knows nothing. Paragon or example? I have never been able to decide, but only because I want to give Carr the benefit of the doubt.
But this reminds me of Dave Sim’s Cerebus once he got into the final book, when his misogyny ran riot, spewing forth ever more ridiculous and exaggerated situations as the ‘natural extension’ of what he found so offensive today, since it no longer mattered. Carr is his own publisher and thus his own editor. Had his prior work been toned down? There is a distinct tonal difference between his first two novels and those that followed: had he had to adapt some aspects of his work, or make it more explicitly comic to be accepted for publication? Was he now free to cut loose again, untrammelled?
As I say, I don’t know. But what I do know is that What Hetty Did  is one of the most difficult books I own, and certainly the most unlikeable.
There is, thankfully, a little more to the novel than Hetty herself. Rose’s boarding house may be home to Ted, an honest, straightforward, uncomplicated young man who takes an unreciprocated liking to Hetty (who treats him abominably) but it also houses two more familiar figures, in Edward Peplow and Emma Foxberrow.
We see much of Peplow, whom Hetty adopts in minor manner but, barring the most fleeting and oblique reference to the events of A Day in Summer, we learn nothing of his life since then. He is merely an old man, troubled by pains in his legs, living without family in a Birmingham guest house. Peplow recites stirling and martial poetry to take his mind off his painful legs: it frequently keeps Hetty awake at night. His story is n story however: it has no plot, no ending.
At least there is slightly more shape to Emma Foxberrow’s tale. Until the very end when, thanks to Major Horbling, George Harpole turns up to take her away from all this, she doesn’t even appear onscreen; she is a voice behind a bedroom door, lamenting eternally losing George through her failure to simply admit she loved him. According to Rose, who is flagrantly wrong about all this, Emma is aware people are listening and is making it up for attention: she is Harpole’s widow, he having gone to the gallows for beating a woman to death.
Emma blames everything on Cambridge, teaching her to focus upon her head, not her heart. Hetty ends the novel at Cambridge. Do you see why I can’t decide how I’m supposed to take Hetty? Is Carr really, in 1988, saying that education is a bad thing for women? This is a world apart from How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup.

End of Term Report: Arrow

When the baddie’s the best thing about your show…

Arrow‘s third season took a serious beating from critics and audience alike, so it was incumbent on it to come up with something much better this year. With one sterling exception, it didn’t up its game anything like as much as it needed to, and in one area the show broke a bond with one loyal member of the audience who’d been there from the beginning and who was willing to forgive much just because this was a show about Green Arrow.

Essentially, season 4 was same again, arranged slightly differently, from season 3. And season 2. And season 1. True, the show upped its game in the form of its chosen Big Bad whose season-long arc aimed at destroying Star City: I may have been among the few who enjoyed Matt Nable’s performance as R’as Al’Ghul last time, but Neal McDonough as Damien Darkh was an upgrade and a half: McDonough’s larger-than-life relish of his role was great to watch.

And the stakes were higher, since it was not just Star City that was up for destruction, but this time the entire planet.

Now that’s two mentions of Star City and one of Green Arrow already, when this show has lasted three seasons on the non-comics names of Starling City and The Arrow. It’s been a welcome development, but it really only emphasised where the show got it wrong in the first place, thinking that it had to go with more realistic names so as not to put off its audience.

Like The Flash, the first half of the series was limited by the need to participate in setting up Legends of Tomorrow, which in Arrow‘s case, primarily meant bending the story around reviving Sarah lance and returning to Nanda Parbat and re-evoking the rivalry between Malcolm Merlin and Nyssa Al’Ghul over the league of Assassins.

Meanwhile, Oliver is living happily in retirement with Felicity and planning to give her a ring until she drags him back to assist Team Arrow, which is drowning vertically. Felicity finds herself head of Palmer Technology, which leads into rescuing Ray Palmer for Legends, whilst Oliver fools everybody in the newly-rechristened (in honour of Ray, an offcomer who was only there for about nine months) Star City by appearing as the Green Arrow that nobody connects with the recently deceased no-colour Arrow who was functionally and physically identical to the Green one.


Complicate this with the mysterious flash forward at the end of episode 1, with Oliver (and Barry) mourning someone inknown who’d wound up in a grave, which the showrunners just threw in without any idea of who would end up in it, and the stage was set for another typically confused season, in which very little would make any coherent sense, especially if you took the trouble to compare the events of one episode with that of another (or sometimes even within the same episode).

This year’s flashbacks saw us back to Lian Yu, with Ollie sent in under cover to frustrate the mysterious efforts of Baron Riker to uncover something that turned out to have a magical link to Damien Darhk. As Ollie was away five years, seeing the final year of flashbacks link into the start of season 1 is my main motivation for staying on for season 5.

Because about two-thirds of the way through, a very large part of my connection to this series broke, suddenly and finally. I’ve always liked Felicity, and I like how Emily Bett Rickards plays her (and I like how Emily Bett Rickards looks when playing her). It’s been a rollercoaster this year: from idyllic retirement together, ending because Felicity couldn’t leave crime-fighting alone, to engagement, warmth, trust, tycoondom, paraplegia, and a completely hypocrital reversal over Ollie keeping secrets from her when it came to his son.

Never mind the concept that sometimes people have to keep secrets even from those closest to them, because they are not free to spread the information without the say-so of the person to whom it belongs, Felicity totally lost it over little William. And when Ollie decided that the only way to protect his offspring was to send his ex- and the boy away somewhere even he didn’t know – without consulting Felicity on something that had fuck all to do with her – and she broke up with him, I broke with the programme.

If they want to go to such contrived lengths to fuck around with a successful and valuable relationship, sobeit, but I completely lost interest. Ever since, I’ve been watching solely from habit and the primeval urge to know how it comes out, but I can no longer invest anything of myself into the show.

It ended up being Laurel (Black Canary) Lance in the grave, the showrunners finally giving way to nearly four years of hatred by getting rid of Katie Cassidy (not without a last words declaration that it was always Ollie she loved that rang about as true as a three dollar coin). Incidentally, showing my shallow side here, in nearly four years on Arrow I never found Katie Cassidy attractive, but one ten minute guest spot on The Flash as the Earth-2 villainess, Black Siren, and boy was she hot!

One positive for next season is the announcement that Echo Kellum will be a regular. Kellum has appeared sporadically in season 4 as a genius level inventor at Palmertech, but although he’s been saddled with the name Curtis, instead of Michael, he’s been seen designing T-spheres, so I hope next season we’ll be looking at Team Arrow expanding to include Mr. Terrific.

As Terrific is another old favourite of mine, I am hoping for spin-off material.

The season ended with the same disregard for practicality and emotional logic that the show has developed from the beginning, except that a show four years old should have grown out of it by now and this one’s only getting worse by the episode as the emotional beats are being tortured into ugly and impossible shapes in order to service the latest plot contrivance.

So  Damien Darhk dies, at the Green Arrow’s hands, in public, the Green Arrow that’s Star City’s investment in hope. Diggle and Thea resign to cater to their inner demons, Thea to sit on a couch, picking at the hem of her designer jeans and Diggle to re-enlist in the military (makes perfect sense to me, folks). Oliver gets sworn in as Mayor for giving an inspirational speech whilst stood on the roof of a taxi (which wasn’t moving, thankfully) that somehow managed to get people rioting in panic over being about to die from a nuclear missile to stop and listen to, even when the missile was visible in the sky, racing towards them.

And Felicity sticks with Oliver which, by my count, is about the seventy-third different and incompatible emotional stance she’s struck this series alone.

It’s been a busy season. I’ve bailed on Lucifer already, and had Agent Carter cancelled out from under me. I’ve gotten hooked on iZombie which will come into next season’s mix, and I’ve also gotten into Person of Interest, which won’t because it’s rapidly closing in on the end of its final season. The rest look good for another year, but I am very close to dropping over the edge with Arrow, which needs to have an exceptional season 5 if it wants to keep me on board for any season 6. Based on its record to date, I’m not expecting miracles.

So, summer’s here and, except for Preacher it looks like being three months or so of catch-up. I’ll try to finish off Parks and Recreation and Spartacus. See you in September.

The Infinite Jukebox: Johnny Cash – ‘Hurt’

I hurt myself today. To see if I still feel.

It’s such an unbelievable collision. Johnny Cash, the Man in Black, the American symbol of country music, the icon of strength, and a song by alternate rockers Nine Inch Nails. Such a simple song too, with flat, direct lyrics set to an ironed out melody, but the outcome is something of almost infinite strength and terror. Trent Reznor’s song is about addiction, about heroin, about the point at which you become so hollowed out that pain is needed to test that you can still feel something, anything. And it’s about recognition that by taking yourself to this extreme, the hurt you cannot feel is the same hurt that you have visited on those around you, who love you.

I heard about the song through its video, watched it out of curiosity, was overwhelmed by its visceral power, built upon Cash’s obvious age and fragility. Until relatively recently, I only played the video, that accumulation of stillness and normality that makes the music the starker for its lack of adornment.

But the song is no less powerful when you only listen to it. It grows, it swells, it compresses the chest, it slows the heart as it builds through that simple chorus, underscored by the pulsing piano chords, until your heart races with desperation and your own body is drained, and you are shaking and desperate for it to stop and desperately afraid that it won’t.

Cash doesn’t just sing the lyrics, he inhabits them, as if they are the newly-coined words of a man speaking from all the length of his life, not merely regretting, but knowing that the pain he has caused can never been undone, can never be forgiven, least of all by himself. June Carter Cash looks on in the video, willing him the strength to last, unable to do anything but love, untouching, as the song ends, the piano lid comes down carefully, and Cash slumps.

This is astonishing. One leaves it changed.

I have never heard the original version. With respect to Trent Reznor and his band, I propose never to. This isn’t a song. In Cash’s mouth it traverses a Universe in just over three minutes. It is a Universe. It scares me.

End of Term Report: The Flash

A happy crew

I love The Flash. Forget this grim’n’gritty nonsense, the superheroes I grew up on, who imprinted upon me my innate sense of recognition for the form, were filled with excitement and a sense of fun, and from its inception, this show has been the best at portraying that internal lightness, the joy and thrill of powers and the sheer yee-hah cut-looseness of superspeed.

A lot of people have talked down season 2, and are already talking of even further limited expectations for season 3. Not I. Whilst I recognise the flaws of this season, especially the way its first half was rather clogged up by the donkey work required to set up Legends of Tomorrow, the show had me from the moment when, at the end of episode 1, this tall, clean-cut guy walked into Star Labs and said, “I’m Jay Garrick.”#

The Flash of Earth-2. Earth-2. Earth-freaking-2 and it’s on tv and I’m watching people crossing the vibrational barrier that blew my mind so much fifty years ago!

So my objectivity and critical faculties tended to get overlooked on Wednesday mornings and I luxuriated in the show. And there was a lot to luxuriate this season. Iris growing into a viable and respectable character. The introduction of a young, strong Wally West (even if he isn’t ginger-haired). The week-in, week-out excellence of Jesse L. Martin’s performance as Joe. Danielle Panabaker getting to rock it out as Killer Frost.

And the presence of Jay Garrick, wearing a darker version of the Golden Age Flash’s costume, but hell’s bells, I am watching such an esoteric thing on TV!

True, I wasn’t happy with the show turning Jay into a villain, though the reveal was nicely handled. And I was definitely not on board with how, after the writers revealed that Jay wasn’t Jay at all, but was actually Hunter Zolomon, everybody still kept calling him Jay. But, still…

The finale was well set-up last week, with Zoom, aka Hunter (not Jay Garrick) Zolomon, killing Barry’s Dad, Henry, who we all remember is being played by John Wesley Shipp, the Barry Allen/Flash on the 1990 series. This wound Barry up to a pitch of genuine agony/anger that everyone else thought was unsafe, but which enabled him to face off and defeat Zolomon in a final race, where the penalty for losing was not just death for Barry and everyone on his side, but the destruction of the entire Multiverse, Earth-1 excepted. Barry pulls off a neat trick by duplicating himself, leaving one version to save the day Crisis on Infinite Earths style, by running himself into disintegration, whilst the other whupped Zoom.

So, this led into a seemingly downbeat endgame. The man in the iron mask in Zoom’s lair had already been revealed by Zoom to be the real Jay Garrick, whose name he had stolen, and who turned out to be the Flash of Earth-3. But the kicker – which did not come unforeseen – was that he was the spitting image of Henry Allen. Which did Barry no good at all.

So, rather improbably stuffed into a red and blue Flash costume, John Wesley Shipp took Harry Wells and Jesse back to Earth-2, where they would help him get on to Earth-3 (it’s funny how Barry hasn’t told anybody about his side-trip to Kara Zor-El’s Earth). Jesse wanted to go home. Harry had her blessing to stay, since he obviously fit in over here, but his promise never to leave her held, which means some hopefully tolerable contrivance is going to be needed next season to bring Tom Cavanagh back, because he is just as important to The Flash as Grant Gustin.

But the real Jay’s appearance completed the job of breaking Barry Allen. Iris is ready for him, what he’s dreamed of, but he feels too hollow, too broken inside to be what she deserves. So the real finale is Barry running back in time to his old home, that very night, the night the Reverse-Flash killed Nora Allen.

This time last season, Barry did this, but was warned off saving his mother by a future version of himself, wearing this season’s uniform. But this time, the season 2 Barry rips into the Reverse-Flash, and saves Nora. When season 1 Barry peeps through the door, he sees his Mom alive, and promptly fades out. As does season 2.

So. Barry’s saved his Mom. He’s Flashpointed his world (which ought technically to bugger up Arrow, Legends and Supergirl, if it now turns out Barry never became the Flash) which led to absolute disaster in the comics (the new 52, for a start).

Let’s bring it on! I can’t wait to see how they get themselves out of this. Roll on September.

Crap Journalism: Re-naming Titty

This next example of Crap Journalism is by regular Guardian columnist Ben Child. The article is about the forthcoming new Swallows and Amazons film, which I mentioned here months ago. Famously, the Swallows themselves were based on a real life family of four children, the third of whom, Mavis Altounyan, was immortalised under her family nickname, Titty.

Yes, I know. Times change and the book was written in 1928. For the forthcoming film, Titty has become Tatty (she was Kitty in the 1963 BBC TV adaptation). You could hardly do anything but change the name, but the late Mavis’s niece has complained about the change, calling it disrespectful to her aunt.

In that she’s objecting to applying the name ‘Tatty’ to her late aunt, Barbara Altounyan would appear to have a case. It seems to be completely unsuitable. On general terms, however, objecting to any change at all, she’s on dodgy ground.

But the crap journalism that made me snap at this article is when Childs sets up the background of Ransome’s using the Altounyan’s as templates for the Swallows. He names them all, starting with Mavis’s elder brother John, the model for Captain John Walker. There’s just one problem: John Altounyan never existed!

The eldest Altounyan child was the tomboyish Tacqui, a daughter (who later wrote a memoir, In Aleppo Once). Ransome used her as a model, but changed her into the boy, John, for commercial reasons (a two boys, two girls split read better), sexist reasons (a girl giving orders?) and possibly unconscious personal reasons (John Walker was a means by which the 40+ Ransome could take part in his children’s adventures).

This isn’t esoteric information, it doesn’t take ages to dig out, it’s crap journalism. Get the facts right, Child, it’s your job to be accurate.

Incidentally, if the film is a success, there are hopes to turn it into a series. I for one would support that gratefully. But I’m on the family’s side over ‘Tatty’.

Crap Journalism: How I Quit Diet Coke

I suspect this is going to become a very regular feature on this blog. As I have previously mentioned, I was registered with the Guardian to comment on their comment threads, but cancelled my membership as far back as 2012, over certain policies towards regular commentators. Since then, I have had no means to respond directly to articles, as I refuse to re-register with a new account.

So I’m going to sound off here whenever I see something that deserves scathing response, under the Crap Journalism heading.

This article‘s a few days old. Basically, it’s about Diet Coke and it being bad for you, and how breaking an addiction to it (which the writer still hasn’t quite achieved) is the hardest thing she’s ever had to do.

Ok, fine, personal interest story, we get it. But Ms Valle starts her piece, and keeps bringing up, over and over, that Diet Coke tastes awful. Everybody hates the taste of it.

Hmm. I like Diet Coke. It doesn’t taste awful to me (takes swig from bottle). Article refuted, case collapses entirely, waste of space.

Yes, this is another of those yet again articles where a journalist mistakes their personal opinion for an objective fact. It’s the most basic of crap journalism, but it pervades the Guardian like the smell of a skunk pervades a room, and it’s just as pleasant to read. I automatically dismiss all such things as unimportant, and the journalist as having nothing to say.

There’ll be another example along any day now. Don’t worry, I won’t call out all of them.


Deep Space Nine:s2e14 “Whispers”

Someone’s not enjoying being kissed…

To be truthful, I didn’t particularly enjoy this latest episode of DS9. It seemed entirely too predictable from the start and whilst the ending contained a twist I hadn’t foreseen, and which was a bit smarter than I was giving the episode credit for, overall this was just a self-contained story, of no moment before or after its broadcast, but which played with things that would normally have wider-ranging effects.

‘Whispers’ was an O’Brien-centric episode which seemed strange scheduling immediately after an O’Brien-centric episode. It set the tone by starting at the end: O’Brien on the run from the station, from something disturbing that was treated in nebulous but portentous tones: in short, we were in for paranoia.

The episode itself was primarily an extended flashback as the Chief records his side of things against fatalistic overtones of ‘who will they ever allow to hear this?’ It was designed to point one way, and I duly fell for it.

Basically, O’Brien has been off-station among the Paradas in the Gamma Quadrant, agreeing extremely stringent security protocols for forthcoming peace talks on DS9 with the rebel forces in their Civil War. But once back, the Chief finds everybody behaving suspiciously, unnaturally around him. It starts with Keiko and Molly but it encompasses everyone. And he’s being pushed around to prevent him doing his normal jobs: an exceptionally lengthy physical with Bashir, a repair job that may be deliberate sabotage.

It builds up in his mind. A conspiracy, by whom and for what he can’t see, but everyone is against him.

So far this is clearly Paranoia 101, which is why I mentally downgraded the episode. A red herring trail had been paid in a throwaway line about Paradan body odour: some sort of gassing, clearly. O’Brien’s been affected somehow. What was dispiriting was that I knew the episode would have no after-effect, no carry-over. Early Nineties drama series, self-contained episodes, capable of being shown in practically any order. I’ve made that comparison several times already, to DS9‘s detriment, and knowing that this intense paranoia would vanish immediately next week, I couldn’t help but be dismissive.

I was, of course, wrong, and the programme was a lot smarter than that, but too late to change my now well-fixed attitude. O’Brien flees, is pursued, finds his way to Parada 2 and an underground rebel base where Sisko and Co are meeting with the rebels: but it is O’Brien who is wrong. The Chief is already there, just being released from abduction. The one we’ve followed is a replicant, created to destroy the peace talks. Everyonewas acting strangley towards ‘him’ because he was the wrong one out.

The replicant is shot and killed. It was incredibly detailed, so well-programmed that it not only passed an extended physical, it genuinely thought it was Miles O’Brien. It says Keiko’s name. It’s last words are, “Tell her… I love…”

I should be applauding this episode for taking me in so well. That so rarely happens and I love being misled, but for once it didn’t work. It only reinforced my depression over the insular nature of this episode. It won’t have any bearings, not even temporarily, on future relationships because the proper O’Brien wasn’t even on the station. That’s an aspect of series drama I really don’t miss.