Book Review: Duncton Wood (William Horwood)

This book has been out of print since the  90s now, which goes to show how quickly things disappear in the print world. But when I was a teenager, there were six Duncton books that came out (two trilogies) and they were all best-sellers. Which was funny, because they were all gigantically long novels about moles. Yes, moles. The little animals that dig tunnels and eat worms.

How did they get to be bestsellers? Was there nothing better to do in the 80s? (Well, it was before the internet, so we probably had a longer attention span, which would help.) Actually, the secret was that William Horwood was an exceptionally good writer.

Duncton Wood is the first one that was written and was probably designed to stand by itself, because it’s fairly self-contained. It details the life and times of two moles – Bracken and Rebecca – who lived in the system of Duncton, and all the things that befell them.

It’s hard to explain if you don’t actually read it, but Horwood’s prose is stunningly beautiful. He’s adopted the voice of ancient mole telling us a legend. So everything that happens is given a gravitas and weight that lifts it up above many animal tales. Also, this is a story that is definitely written for adults. It’s not gratuitous by any stretch of the imagination, but it contains some moments of sexuality and strong violence.

But I think the strength of the story, and the thing that Horwood successfully tapped into is the spiritual element that he gives the moles. Right in the centre of the Duncton system on the top of a hill, stands the Stone. It is a huge standing stone which is not actually their god, but representative of “The Stone”, the being that they believe looks over them and cares for them.

The Stone is a slightly weird combination of several religions, so you’ll be able to recognise elements of Christianity, Buddhism and other things. But what spoke to me most about the story is that it wrestled with nearly every major spiritual question that mankind has faced – but by giving us moles as characters, Horwood can deal with the issues in a way that is slightly removed from the real world.

So, for instance, when the story opens in Duncton, the system has fallen into a situation where nobody really has a connection with the Stone any more. Life is just a regular routine of mating, fighting and eating worms. If that’s not a metaphor for life in the Western world, I don’t know what is. But there are several moles out there, like Bracken and Rebecca, that believe that there is more to life than this. It’s this element of the story that most spoke to me.

For the most part, mainly because of the strength of the prose, the story is feeling gripping. There are several patches where I feel things could have been trimmed, and I also tend to hit the middle of long books and want them to be over, but when the arc is completed, and the full novel is complete – the story is immensely satisfying.

So if you come across a copy of Duncton Wood in a second-hand bookstore, and you have the time required to do it justice, I’d pick it up. And you never know, it might just come back into print. William Horwood just released a new fantasy novel last year (Hyddenworld: Spring), which I’ll try to review soon) and if that does okay, there might be a renewed interest in his other books. We’ll see.

4 ½ out of 5.

DVD Review: The Wire – Season One

Before I’d seen The Wire, every time I’d read a review of it, I’d always been struck by the fact that it didn’t sound like a particularly interesting story – cops trying to track down drug dealers (yawn!) – but despite that, the reviewer would be using phrases like “the greatest show on television”. How did that work?

So I decided to finally watch the series and find out what was going on. I can now understand what it’s about.

There is a sense in which this story could be quite pedestrian. It is, on the face of it, a cops/gangster drama. Over the course of 13 episodes, it details how a group of police from the Narcotics and the Homicide divisions of the Baltimore police were put together to catch a drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale. However, the story is much deeper than that.

Writer David Simon wanted to make a point about the social structures that we find ourselves part of and how, in our cities, that those social structures drag us down, despite our best intentions. So he presents us with well-intentioned cops who struggle with the corruption and politics in the police force, but on the other hand, he shows us quite smart young African-American guys who are caught in a tradition of drug-dealing and crime from which they cannot escape. Any time you think you have worked out how to peg somebody’s character, the next episode will show you a new layer that reveals something else.

What I liked most about this story was that it took the concept of episodic television and converted it into a large novel. Unlike a regular series, where there is a certain level of payoff in each episode, The Wire simply begins each episode where it last left off and then ends when the hour runs out – cliffhanger or no. This means that if you first start to watch it, and you find it rather slow going because that’s a bit like reading a few chapters of a novel and giving up. It’s only when you watch it in its entirety that it all comes together.

The other thing that struck me was exactly how little there was of the “protect and serve” mentality among the cops (except as a joke). In every other cop show, cops are driven by a desire to catch bad guys and see justice done. There’s none of the in The Wire. The cops are driven by, if anything, a satisfaction of showing that they’re more clever than the criminal out there and – above else – a desire to get their stats us. So it’s amazing how little enthusiasm there is among the top ranks for actually doing anything about crime. Sad to say, given that David Simon was a cop before he started writing for television, this is probably an accurate picture of the modern police force.

The other bit of artistry that struck me is that this series has no music (apart from the opening and closing credits of each exercise). And so, because of that, you have no way of gauging emotionally what you should be feeling about a scene – which is rather like real life, isn’t it? The only time they break this rule is over a montage at the end of the very last episode – which means that the use of music there is far more powerful.

The final warning that I should offer is that everything you’ve heard about the level of swearing in this series is correct. There is a lot and if that will offend you, then don’t even consider the series. But if you can get past that, and you want a series that will both entertain and challenge your mind, this is one of the great TV series of the last 10 years.

5 out of 5.

DVD Review: The Queen

A 1001 Films review. The Queen documents the week in which Princess Diana died, and the royals ummed and ahhed over how to publicly react to her death. She was no longer really a royal, so officially it should have been “a private matter”. However, the public were grieving the loss of “the people’s princess” and wanting the Royal Family to acknowledge that.

Most of the film is a sort of back and forth between the newly-elected Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen, who was actually revising the role of Blair from an earlier TV movie called The Deal), and Queen Elizabeth II (a spot-on performance by Helen Mirren).

The film is quite impressive from an acting perspective, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is quite rich – and the DVD has a nice 5.1 mix that lets it ring out. But there are also many times when I felt that things were being spelt out quite simply (perhaps for Americans?).

On the whole, the best strength of the film is that whether you are Republican or Royalist, the film manages to touch on all those points of view, but ultimately rises above it to become a film about people, the traditions they inherit, and the steps that we sometimes have to take to keep up with the times.

4 out of 5.


Book Review: The Fellowship of the Ring (JRR Tolkien)

This is my second read-through of The Lord of the Rings. My first was just before the Peter Jackson films came out, and so I was racing through the books trying to finish each one before the film came out. If you’d asked me back then, I would have said that it was a bit like trying to read a fantasy adventure crossed with the King James Bible. Quite slow and ponderous. I mean, what was Tolkien doing? He’d take two pages to describe the landscape, then when the action came, it’d be over in two paragraphs!

But now that I’m back to reading it again, I’m a little bit more understanding of what he is doing. I also made a point of reading a couple of the Appendices first, rather than waiting till the end. If you approach his story armed with a knowledge of the history and background of the place, then his story comes alive – he really is giving us a zoomed-in view of a year in Middle Earth – an eventful year, but one that is part of a much broader sweep of history that has gone before it.

I think that’s what I missed the first time. I wanted action and adventure and for the story to get to the end. (And if you want that, the Jackson films have cleverly recrafted the story to provide all this.) However, what Tolkien provides is a much different experience. In real time, almost, day by day, he is recounting what happened to his characters and he will not be rushed. He is not interested in where the story is going, but the journey itself. Thus, the landscape and the history are important to what he is doing.

So if you take a deep breath and read it slowly, the richness of the world starts to come alive. (And I can’t help but wonder how strange this would have been to the original readers.) We’re kind of used to having hundreds of fantasy worlds, all with maps in the front of the books, strange names and their own rules. But I’m not sure how many of those existed when Lord of the Rings was first created.

The theme that seems to recur most often in the first book (apart from impending doom) is this feeling of ancient civilisations disappearing, to be replaced by new ones. Was this something Tolkien saw happening in England (a country where many ancient civilizations have settled and mixed together)? I don’t think we’ll ever know completely, and that’s probably okay. Will look forward to seeing how the other two volumes hold up.

4 ½ out of 5.


Day ? of (Who Knows?): Falling Off a Horse

While I was quite enjoying tracking my fitness, somewhere in the last couple of months, everything (except for pushups) completely fell off the radar. There have been various stresses and goings-on that I could use for an excuse – but I think the simplest thing is to say that I’m going to get back on the horse and give it another go.

I’ll keep you posted.