I had expected somewhere deep, dripping, lost; the kind of woolpit children could wander into and never come back, green. The reality was more prosaic: a wedding venue, well-tended countryside, barbed wire and new fences. Yet it lives in my memory: the hulks of flint rising in the deep copse, a mile from the nearest road; bedding down and finding the tree that had seemed such a haven in daylight mysteriously threatening, its roots among the ancient dead; the cracked and battered once-were-walls unexpectedly welcoming, a kind of second-best to home. Something deep, lived-in, in the softness of the night, the clouds barely visible as they shift and wink the starlight above the turning earth, the benign, tamed, townless country, the subtle working of roots, leaves and knapped flints beneath a soft wind. This is why Wild Sleeping is so powerful: like a dream, it lives on in the memory, returns to repeat itself.
What I wasn’t expecting was the 2am synthbleep of the reception, resounding over the Suffolk fields: //let’s get this party started/I lost my phone and my keys on the dancefloor/forget you, forget you too//. I couldn’t work out where the sound was coming from, and stumbled through a pheasant covert and across a rutted field, half awake, never to return….
Its flat white disc, and not much bigger down the lens. Filtered to a deep and molten red, its astonishing size is made apparent by the curvature: even at this enormous distance, one has to refocus between the centre and the edge. A palpable sense, then of ball-ness, of a mighty sphere locked in a continuous maelstrom of explosion, its surface pitted and rippled by the current of unimaginable energy, its fingers sending skywards slow plumes that would fry a planet, where it to rashly pass in its wake.
Each visit is somehow a deeper plunge-in-at-the-deep-end, and even after a few weeks a brief but ever more intense glimpse of how my own world might look from the outside before it just becomes ‘natural’.
England is odd. Where has everybody gone? Everyone seems seperate, muted, as if the volume has been turned down on the world. But the physical environment is glorious: velvet, green, alive with shocking quantities of birdsong.
Yet there is something awfully wrong here, too: the pasty-faced, overweight people who populate Tesco are a shock, a weirdly modern kind of poverty in which bad food rather than lack of it is the issue.
And with this China too is reversed, seen from the inside. The distressing, exhausting, joyous tumult and fuss of family life: like living in a stir-fry. The bucolic countryside which to so many there just looks like toil, the mountain fastnesses, poverty. It is a luxury to see them as anything other. Yet losing myself among them, being a deep observer-not-participant, is one of life’s great joys.
Having just experienced first hand the combination of deep-frozen, dark-dayed December and ferociously beautiful, beautifully ferocious newborn baby, I can see precisely why a Middle Eastern birth of unknown date got locked into to the timing of the north European midwinter. Boy, does that myth work.
No book more influenced my childhood than this one. I used to dream I was on that boat; the combined longing and dissapointment on awakening is still with me. I loved every part of it, apart from the boring slave-trader early chapter; but especially I loved the places. And more than anything else, the moment of falling into that picture; the last three chapters, so intensely mythical and poetic that I reread them into adulthood; and those moments: in the magician’s library Lucy says ‘Shall I ever be able to read that story again; the one I couldn’t remember? Will you tell it to me, Aslan?’; and Aslan replies, ‘I will tell it to you for years and years’. And again, by the great wave, ‘I shall be telling you all the time’. Heartbreaking, all the more so for beautifully fusing Christian propaganda with the wider agenda of image and myth.
And now it’s been made into a film. So along I take my daughters: what to make of it?
Firstly, this 3D thing is nice eye candy but it doesn’t transform the experience: film is persuasive enough as a substitute for reality to work perfectly well without it. The landscapes and buildings benefit most from the technqique: I only wished they’d linger on some of these more, let one enjoy them: the first shots cuts along the fake-Tudor entrance screen to King’s, giving me an unexpected chance to indulge in a few crockets and pinnacles, while feeling faintly perturbed at finding C.S. Lewis, an Oxford man, having his story relocated to Cambridge. This, for the geographically-attuned Englishman, is almost as worrying as confusing London north of the river with London south of it, or the moors of Yorkshire with those of Devon…
This eye candy thing is a problem. Perhaps I watch too many kids’ films, but the recent ones all share breathtakingly thought-through CGI places with exhausting editing that makes it quite impossible to sit back and enjoy said creations, or even, in the case of a certain Mr H. Potter, to follow the plot.
But what’s more interesting is what they’ve done with said plot. Apart from being moved to Cambridge, Eustance is made geeky and inadequate (and, perceptively, lower class than the Pevensie kids): the anti-liberal stuff in the book is stripped away. The moment of entering the picture is delicious, if a little over-literal. And they play merry hell with the sequence of islands once the kids reach Narnia: the island with the golden pool and the island with the dragon are conflated into one; more to the point Lewis’ carefully constructed Platonic sequence of places is completely arsed-about with, by introducing a supernatural element to the ‘earthly’ Lone Islands, relocating the subsequent storm, and creating an entirely new plot line that involves a (yawn-not-another) quest for seven swords and necessitates placing the dark island last, after the island of the sleepers. The dark island is then ramped up, making the original idea – a great mass of foggy shadows within which both dreams and nightmares come to life – more vivid but less haunting (there’s an interesting account of Lewis’s revision of this passage for the US publication on Wikipaedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Voyage_of_the_Dawn_Treader). Eustace’s dragonising is extended over several islands, neatly tieing them into the plot but again reducing those islands’ roles as places in a symbolic sequence.
But the biggest damage is done at the end, where the loveliest aspects of the island of the sleepers — their role as a feasting place of the stars — is almost entirely done away with, and the beautiful final passages — over the mer-kingdom, through the sea of lilies where the water is warm, shallow and sweet, to the edge of Aslan’s country — cut to the barest minimum concomitant with the film makers idea of Most Childrens’ Patience Levels.
With this goes some subtle twistings of message. The spiritual (oh, ok, *Christian*) subtext of the Magician’s Island is replaced with (suprise suprise) a message about Being Yourself (Fulfilling Your Dreams, etc), even as Lucy wishes to be beautiful rather than to eavesdrop. The G*d stuff at the end is kept, indeed made more wincingly obvious than it is in the book: and both the lovely lines mentioned above are dropped, of fluffed.
All this makes this not (at all) a bad film, but also rather a different one from the book: one wonders what young readers will make of it should they turn there; indeed whether the CS Lewis estate exercises any control over things. At least an early plan to set the whole series in the States was scotched. And one realises how strongly one links image and text: several things, from the reimagining of the Dawn Treader picture as a tiny kitsch watercolour, through the landscapes of several islands (such as that with the gold-turning pool, and the island of the magician) where wrong — but only because Pauline Baynes’s pictures are so strongly linked to C.S Lewis’s words in our imaginations; just as the film will be for a younger generation.
Modernism, mod, Michael Caine: a whole British cool of the 1960s bottled, its sophistication showed off. Even casual misogyny is cool here.
Is there any architecture in this film apart from London Georgian, Turin Baroque, and late Modernism?
It’s a reminder of what the Barbican, the new hotels, the shopping centres, Coventry, Plymouth and arterial roads looked like to many at the time. The patina of our age has cast a dire eye over them, an eye so dire that it forgets that to many at the time could be sleek utopian dreams, and a rational reaction to a past discredited by its own blitzs, a future rescued by sleek technologies. Both are patinas: there is no guarantee that the future won’t love these modernisms as much as the present loves the other aspects of 60s culture. No wonder Michael Caine is a couinousser of Techno.
A live evergreen tree, hauled up the stairs and set up in the living room, smeared and daubed with baubles. Standing there, resinous with pine, an alive (just) presence in the room. Living with the thing daily, watching it shine at night. The fact that we, post-religious, blanded out, consumer-led, do this thing as if it were as natural and obvious as breathing. Which it is, in a world where everything green has gone brown and hard, and the light shrinks away daily. Its tribal, anthropological, vital, an ordinary lifeline to what matters.
This strange culture, in which everything is sexualised, but the sexualisation is commodified: a Barbie-sexuality that in fact has very little to do with sex. Nothing to do with animal lust, nothing to do with creaturely love, nothing to do with divine conjoining, mysterious energies from without and within; nothing to do with reproduction.
No experience throws this into sharper relief than that of birth, even when in it occurs in sanitised rooms of bleeping machines, hidden to the world. For what is birth but the final end of sex; sex backwards; sex in which the rhythmic pushing and climax comes outwards and from the woman rather than inwards from the man, and with more visceral beauty and energy and extraordariness than any of the male’s petty obsessive effusions.
Like that other great life-event, death, the experience of birth is shut away from the smooth plastic surfaces of our world, wrapped up. This closes us off not only from fundamental aspects of our experience – events that find us at once at our most human, our most divine, and our most animal – but also from much human culture. When you have witnessed birth you understand all those mouths, jaws, sheela-na-gigs, hags, wise women, fates, great mothers, weavers of the wyrd; and also all that obsessive management and control of female powers.
You also realise that by fetishing sex (while also diminishing it) we manage to bypass entirely the extraordinary power, danger and beauty of the event to which it is merely the prelude and intent.
Why is it that whenever I watch the news I feel like I’m being duffed up behind the bike sheds by the posh gits?
Perhaps Nick Clegg feels like that everyday…
At first glance it was the Massacre of the Innocents all over again, the Duke of Alba in the middle of a dark cloud of troopers in the middle of the winter village on the polders.
But in fact it was roles reversed; a four-hundred year old slight reslighted, the boys in orange coming among the black-clad nobles like Good King Billy on a dark Ulster night.