Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Horizontal Journey

I'm now back in the land of the living. It was only 'flu, but it was a particularly potent version that involved long episodes of sleep, puntuated by some very strange dreams. I won't relate them here because other people's dreams are always so dull.

I'm not very good at being ill. I think it's probably because I was quite a sickly child and when, at one point, it looked as if I was going to die, I was sent away to a Victorian sanitorium for a year.

Here's the bedroom I used to share with the son of an East End gangster and a boy called Ian, who was described as 'a little backwards':

On the whole I got on well with my roommates, although I wasn't terribly happy about Ian's tendency to defecate on the floor.

I was at the sanitorium for a year and the combination of sea air, good food and a course of vaccinations did the trick. But although I've enjoyed years of good health and can quite happily walk for 20 miles without feeling tired, the merest hint of illness makes me panic. I'm terrified of going back back to the sanitorium.

However, there's also a lot to be said for being forced to lie in bed for six days, particularly if you have a laptop with wireless internet access. Unconstrained by the demands of others, I was able to surf the web for hours, going off on tangential journeys that led to some wonderful discoveries.

Here's the best of what I found:

1. John Krish

If you've heard of the British documentary filmaker John Krish, then I salute you. There's next to nothing about him on Wikipedia. Fortunately, after decades of neglect, a recent DVD release of four of Krish's short films earned him the 'Best Documentary' award at the 2010 Evening Standard Awards.

Here's an extract from John Krish's 1962 documentary 'Our School':

John Krish may not be a household name, but he was responsible for what is arguably the most stylish intro sequence in television history:

2. Daniel Davies - 'The Isle of Dogs'

This is an excellent first novel - one of the best I've read for a long time.

If you want to know what 'The Isle of Dogs' is about, the clue's in the title (and the cover). I wouldn't normally be drawn to a novel about 'dogging', but it was recommended on Amazon for people who liked Jonathan Coe's latest novel (which I didn't like), so I started to read the first chapter. From the first page, I knew that I was in good hands (no sniggering at the back).

The first thing that anyone should know about 'The Isle of Dogs' is that the dogging is purely incidental. Ultimately, this is a philosophical novel about the pursuit of happiness that manages to engage with the big issues without ever taking itself too seriously. I've no doubt that the sexual content has both repelled and attracted people for the wrong reasons, but I found it touching and comic rather than titillating or embarrassing.

Daniel Davies has been compared to Michel Houellebecq and whilst I can see the similarities, he lacks the latter's boorish racism and misogyny. I generally avoid literary criticism on this blog, as so many other people are much better at it, but if you want to know more about 'The Isle of Dogs', I can recommend this interview with the author.

3. Fritz Lang - 'M'

I know that I'm probably the last person to have heard of this film. Apparently it tops polls as one of the greatest German films of all time, but I knew nothing about it. Made in 1931, this was Lang's first 'talkie' and gives a fascinating glimpse into Germany during the Weimar Republic (only two years later, the artistic climate was very different - 'Dr Mabuse' was banned by Goebbels).

'M' is about a man who kills children and 80 years on, it still hasn't lost its power to shock (I can't imagine this film being made in Britain or America). Considering that this was one of the first movies with sound, it's remarkable how well the acting and direction compares with later films. But although it's an ensemble piece, the film is dominated by Peter Lorre as the villian and Gustaf Gründgens as the 'Safecracker', who is concerned that Lorre's activities are making it impossible for the criminal underworld to go about their daily business (Gründgens later became the subject of the 1981 film 'Mephisto').

The first part of the film drags, but the second half is gripping and the final scene, where Lorre is being tried by a kangaroo court of local men and women, in a disused warehouse, is incredibly powerful:

4. Jo Nesbø

When I wasn't suffering from the agues and ranting deliriously about Matron, I felt reasonably alert and needed something to pass the time. I had just finished 'Isle of Dogs' and wanted another novel that was intelligently written, but easy to read (Proust and 'flu don't go together). I'd read everything by Henning Mankell, so what else was there for people who don't normally read crime fiction?

At this point, Amazon came into its own. I checked to see what Henning Mankell readers also liked and saw several glowing reviews for Jo Nesbø. With just a few clicks, I was able to download a sample chapter onto my Kindle and decide for myself.

Five days later, I am a huge Nesbø fan and rate the two novels I've read much more highly than the last Kurt Wallander mystery. Unlike some detectives I could mention, Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole isn't divorced and doesn't have a grown-up daughter with whom he has a difficult relationship, but I'm relieved to say that he is a maverick who has a problem with authority and also drinks too much, so we're still on fairly familiar ground.

The first Harry Hole novel I read was 'Redbreast' and although there was an over-reliance on coincidence, I was impressed by Nesbø's ability to weave several disparate narrative threads together and create credible characters that don't always fall into the stock clichés of crime fiction. Yes, there is a grumpy, misanthropic forensics officer who is on the verge of retirment and there's also the long-suffering boss who gives the protagonist 24 hours/two days/one week to solve the crime before they're taken off the case. But overall this novel was a refreshing change from what I've seen and I enjoyed the Norwegian setting.

By the end of my six days in bed I started to feel better and imagined what life would be like if I could just carry on living like Oblomov, never having to get up again. But back at work the next day, I realised how good it was to feel useful and needed.


Little Nell said...

Welcome back to the land of the living. Thank goodness the requiem wasn’t needed.

Tim F said...

If anyone defecated on that carpet, how would they know?

Roger said...

Two poinrs about M: although he kills children, Lorre isn't actually a villain and his "trial" is by other criminals and they cannoy jsutify their vondemnation of him and their own activities. Anyway, erlcome back to the labd of the living.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back, dear Steerforth. Don't you worry - we won't let them send you away again...
Anna C

Paul said...

I think if you've "read everything by Henning Mankell" then you can't really describe yourself as someone who, doesn't "normally read crime fiction".

Jim Murdoch said...

I had the flu once and there are no such things as 'a touch of the flu' or 'only the flu' unless you're comparing it to bubonic plague or something. I was bedridden for a week and it was the catalyst for my second bout of major depression (whether it was technically post-viral depression I don't honestly know) but I do not ever want to have the flu again and I faithfully go to the doctor for my annual anti-flu jabs. Glad you're better though.

Steerforth said...

You have a point Paul. I suppose what I mean is that whenever I try to read the majority of crime writers, I usually come up against a brick wall. I don't know why.

Roger, you're quiet right - I didn't go into this as I thought that the post was already too long, but the debate about justice was fascinating. I also thought that it was interesting how the 'Safecracker' anticipated the Gestapo.

Anna - Thanks. Fortunately, I couldn't go back to the sanitorium even if I wanted to. They knocked it down in 1987. Shame, it was a lovely building.

Little Nell - I think we always need Brahms' Requiem ;)

Tim - It's anyone's guess what colour the carpet was originally isn't it? The room didn't have a carpet when I was there. I know this because the gangster's son slipped on a piece of my Lego and skidded across the floor until his hand went through the window.

There was a lot of blood.

Steerforth said...

Thanks Jim. Yes, they weren't saying "Just the'flu" in 1918 were they?

And you're right, viruses aren't good for the soul. I'm trying to remind myself that my life isn't any more pointles and futile than it was two weeks ago.

Stupidly, I forgot to get a jab last autumn. I won't make that mistake again.

Rob said...

Glad you have recovered, and thanks for another fascinating post. Kirsh looks very interesting. M is one of my favourite films, and Lorre is superb in it. There was an American version, made twenty years later, and directed by Joseph Losey. Not as good as the original, but one of those remakes that is so close to the original that you wonder why they bothered.

Poetry24 said...

So good to have you back. Just been laid up for a few days with something similar. The John Krish clip was fascinating. I'll be exploring other recommendations in the coming days.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I am glad you are feeling better Steerforth and share your guilt at being off work when sick. I don't blame you for being terrified of illness in view of your extraordinary childhood experiece. Your long spell of illness then may indeed explain the origins of your fierce intellect now.

Did you know that Tony Hancock's writers Galton and Simpson met in a sanitorium as boys when they both had TB and formed their interest in comedy and comedy-writing whilst there?

Though how they expected you to thrive in the company of a room mate who defecated on the floor is anyone's guess!

I watched the film about the classroom in the early 60s - excellent stuff!

sukipoet said...

Great that you are feeling better. I havent had the flu for a number of years, and the last bout I did think i was dying. It took at least a month to recover.

Did not know of this Peter Lorre movie. Will put in my Netflix Q. Love Peter Lorre.

Jo Nesbo--have read all his translated books, maybe three now? Also have read many Mankell's.

There is an Asian psychological therapy called Naikin I believe in which the client is put to bed for a week, allowed only to get up to eat and for a trip to the loo. I think the idea is to make one long so much for life activities that one gets over the psychological issue that caused the depression and lack of will to live.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you are feeling better - being incapacitated by flu is horrible. In the context of the brief history you gave, I also completely understand your anxieties about feeling unwell.

On the plus, I really enjoyed your post so thanks for gathering together some of the most intersting things you found while feeling crappy. I love being introduced to things/people I know nothing about via a trusted source of recommendations/insight and your blog definitely fits that bill for me.

I have woken up feeling woozy and full of cold today and (against my usual drive to be useful) am spending the day reading and doing very little else. Reading your blog has been a very welcome break from my irritation at being incapacitated!

Gabriela Von Bohlen said...

The sanatorium room is hideous! Did they buy the furnishings and textiles at a flea market?

I like Jo Nesbø, but when you read a pile of his books, they seem quite similar.

lucy joy said...

Glad to have you back Sir, that supply teacher was useless!
Great new book/film recommendations-thanks. I shall share them with my father who will be particularly interested.
May I suggest you try this film (if you haven't already seen it) if you ever find yourself lying in bed feeling disconnected from the world again. I saw it when my middle son was a few weeks old, and my brain woke up with a start.
I would buy that red bedspread if I saw it in a charity shop, so no more snooty comments please readers!

Anonymous said...

Really glad you're feeling better now. I think the Avengers opening is brilliant, but didn't know the name John Krish. I find it amazing that you so casually mention you were sent to a sanatorium for a year, not to mention what it was like there. I'm pretty sure you won't be sent back, no matter what happens, because I suppose they've all been axed by governmental cuts by now?

lucy joy said...

did I fail to leave the link, (silly me)? The film is '4' by Ilya Khrzhanovsky -khrzhanovsky-4-chetyre/

Steerforth said...

Laura - I didn't know about the Galton and Simpson sanitorium connection, but it makes perfect sense.

Christine - the sanitorium was private, run by a charity, so it would have thankfully been beyond the clutches of the Treasury. But it closed a long time ago, a couple of years after I left. If I seemed to mention it casually, it's because I was trying to control my urge to talk about it until the cows come home. It was a very odd place!

Suki - I like the idea of a week in bed as therapy, although if I was being waited on hand and foot, I think I'd apply for an extension.

Pinky - I hope you feel better soon. In the meantime, I prescribe plenty of bed rest, a hot water bottle and several hours of reading. If a fever develops, I'm told that a chilled glass of Pouilly-Fumé is particularly effective.

Gabriella - I have to agree with you about the decor - a horrible carpet, hideous curtains and a number of clashing designs. But I have a soft spot for the 1970s bedspread.

Lucewoman - Thanks for the link. I couldn't get it to work, so I tried YouTube and found a wonderful intro with dogs. It looks a great film - I shall have to watch it now.