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St Andrew’s Church consecrated in Midrand, South Africa

30 November 2019

Nearly seven years ago the foundation stone for St Andrew’s Church was laid in Midrand. It was the first Romanian Orthodoxc Church to be built in Africa. On St Andrew\s Day, 30th November 2019, it was consecrated by His Eminence Damaskinos, the Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria and His Eminence Iosif, Bishop of the Romanian Patriarchate for Western and Southern Europe.

The bishops leave for the consecration of the outside of the church

The Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and the Bishop of the Romanian Exarchate of Western and Southern Europe consecrate St Andrew’s Church in Midrand, Gauteng

The bishops and others go in procession round the church, marking the west, south, east and north sides with holy chrism.

The bishops consult over the differences between the Greek and Romaniaqn orders of service

Consecrating a church on a hot summer day is thirsty work

All the ikons inside the church, except those on the ikonostasis itself,. were painted by Fr Justin Venn.

Fr Markos Manyeke, Fr Isajlo Marcovic and Fr Justin Venn (who painted most of the ikons in the church).





The Concert and La Belle Sauvage

22 November 2019

At first sight the two books I discuss here seem to have little in common, so perhaps it is mere coincidence that I happened to read them at about the same time that made me see several similarities between them. So here are my separate reviews, followed by some thoughts about them together.

La Belle Sauvage (The Book of Dust, #1)La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I quite enjoyed Philip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials, though the third one, The Amber Spyglass was disappointing (my review here: Evangelising atheism: Philip Pullman | Notes from underground).

Then I found a shop with dozens of copies of the prequel, La Belle Sauvage going cheap — they’d clearly over-ordered in the expectation of a rush of demand, like the Harry Potter books, but it didn’t turn out like that. And if the demand was disappointing, so, to some extent, was the book.

The protagonist is eleven-year-old Malcolm Polstead, an innkeeper’s son, who loves to spend his free time paddling his canoe, La Belle Sauvage. He often paddles across the river to a convent of Calvinist nuns (don’t ask), who are given a rather mysterious baby, Lyra Belaqua, the later protagonist of His Dark Materials to look after. But others have an interest in this baby, and and clearly do not wish her well.

After prolonged heavy rains the river floods, and Malcolm, aided by fifteen-year-old Alice, the kitchen girl from his parents’ inn, rescues Lyra from the flood, and, swept away by the swollen river, decides to take her to her father’s house in Chelsea. The six of them (three children and their daemons) have various adventures, with dangers and narrow escapes, en route to London.

It’s not a bad story, quite exciting in parts, but after His Dark Materials it falls a bit flat. Pullman’s world-building seems to slip in a number of places. In His Dark Materials one of the attractive things is the different alternative worlds he creates, with greater or lesser divergences from our world. But in La Belle Sauvage he seems to have grown impatient with it, and the history and geography that Malcolm studies at school seem to be the history and geography of our world rather than of Lyra’s world in Northern Lights.

The differences in language are maintained in a perfunctory way, but without consistent explanation. There is an anbaric drill, but no anbaric torches — everyone uses lanterns. Then suddenly an anbaric torch appears, and one wonders why they didn’t use them earlier.

As in Lyra’s world they use “philosophical instruments”, but in Malcolm’s world they are used to achieve “scientific management of resources”. which pricks the bubble of illusion. We are back in Will’s (or our own) Oxford, only without telephones and with people having daemons.

Lyra’s Oxford in His Dark Materials seems to have separated from ours at about the time of the Renaissance and developed in a different way. Malcolm’s Oxford seems less consistent. The sinister church organisations seem Cromwellian, but most of the rest seems modern, with perhaps a few significant differences. The daemons of people are often non-European — lemurs, bushbabies and the like, but their ancestors never are, except perhaps in the case of the gyptians. An odd discrepancy, that.

The ConcertThe Concert by Ismail Kadare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read a couple of Ismail Kadare’s books before — see Chronicle in stone — book review | Khanya — but the others were set in the time before Albania was ruled by Enver Hoxha, who famously made it, for 27 years, the world’s only truly atheist county.

Albania was almost unique among communist countries in becoming increasingly isolated from the world, including other communist countries. It broke first from the USSR, but for a while maintained friendship with China, but eventually even that friendship dissolved, and during the 1970s Albania’s ties with China loosened and Hoxha came to regard the Chinese, like the Soviets, as “revisionists”.

This novel is set in that period, and shows the effects of the changing relationship with China on families that were mostly fairly close to the centres of power in Albania. Relations between the two countries cooled when Albania crtiticised the Chinese decision to invite US President Nixon to visit China in 1972, and by the time of Chairman Mao’s death in 1976 the break was almost complete. And now, 40 years later, we see China treating African countries in the same way as it treated Albania in the 1970s.

… everyone talked of how work had slowed down on many big construction sites, especially those building hydro-electric plants in the north. This was because of hold-ups in supplies of equipment from China. Freighters now took and unconscionably long time to reach their destination, and when they did arrive they might be carrying the wrong cargo. On two occasions ships had turned back without even entering Durres harbour. All this was said to be part of China’s famous “turn of the screw”. Cafes in Tirana were full of stories about this tactic: no one realized that one day the whole country would be its victim.

The “concert” of the title took place towards the end of this period, where the audience was far more important than the performers, and Albania, like the rest of the world, was watching to see who was invited and who was not, who turned up and who did not.

At the centre of the story is Silva Dibra, a civil servant like her husband Gjergj (whose job takes him on visits to China), their schoolgirl daughter Brikena, Silva’s brother Arian, an officer in a tank regiment who was expelled from the Party for disobeying an order, and her dead sister Ana. It also features several of her work colleagues and friends and associates of Ana. One of her sister’s associates was a writer, who also visited China, The life and work of Albanian writers and artists was restricted. As Kadare puts it:

…people reconciled themselves to the idea that it was going to be a dry autumn. Meanwhile all the other seasonal changes took place as usual: the leaves turned colour, the temperature dropped, the birds migrated. As usual too, painters flocked to headquarters of the Writers’ and Artists’ Union to get their annual permits to concentrate on autumnal themes.

In China, however, the Writers and Artist’s Union had been abolished altogether in the Great Cultural Revolutuon of 1966/67. According to the thought of Chairman Mao, the “new man” did not need art and literature, which were bourgeois by their very nature. Rather than painting autumnal themes, they should be planting and harvesting rice.

Tirana, Albania, 2000

Nevertheless I’m in two minds about the book. Kadare’s descriptions of the Albanian characters grabs me, perhaps because, having lived there for a month, I can picture the streets of Tirana, the beaches of Durres, and the steel factory at Elbasan, which he mentions. But I’m put off by the bits where he tries to describe the thoughts of Chairman Mao. They are racist thoughts, and I wonder if they are the thoughts of a white racist imagining the thoughts of a Chinese racist, or whether Chairman Mao ever did have any thoughts like that. But there is too much that suggests that they are what a white racist imagines a Chinese racist might think.

And in the book the Albanian characters express racist thoughts about the Chinese, as the Chinese do about the Albanians. Of course an author does not necessarily share the sentiments expressed by his characters. But when Kadare is describing the thoughts of Mao while alone in a cave, these are not mediated through a character in the story, but are described directly.

Some comparisons

Both books have descriptions of a surveillance society, with sinister secret or semi secret bodies organising spying on people.

In The Concert the body is Zhongnanhai, which actually exists as a building regarded as the seat of government of China, similar to “the Kremlin” or “the White House”. But in the novel it refers to a secret security agency responsible not to the Party or the government, but to Chairman Mao personally, and they organised for microphones to be distributed widely for such surveillance. That kind of surveillance is not unfamiliar to me; for some of my personal encounters with it, see here.

In La Belle Sauvage, however, such spying and secret arrests are arranged by the Consistorial Court of Discipline (CCD), the secret police of the “Magisterium”, the body that controls the Church in that particular world, which is, apart from a daemons and a few philosophical instruments much more like our world than Lyra’s world of Northern Lights, and it includes the League of St Alexander, an organisation of school children who are encouraged to spy on their parents and teachers.

Now it is possible that similar things may have existed in Cromwell’s England of the 17th century, or under some 15th-century Renaissance popes (Lyra’s world has that kind of atmosphere, but Malcolm’s is far more like 21st century England now). What Pullman is trying to suggest here is that Christians of the 20th and 21st centuries are the spies rather than the spied upon, and trying to smear Christians with the kind of activities that were actually practised by atheistic regimes against Christians.

What actually happened in Hoxha’s atheist Albania was that the teachers would ask the children what they had been eating at home. From their answers they could determine which families were observing Lent, or Easter or Ramadan, and this would be reported to the appropriate authorities. Pullman tried to create the impression that the victims of such actions in the last 70 years are actually the perpetrators, and that the perpetrators are the victims. If you want to know about the real modern-day “League of St Alexander”, I suggest that you read this: Alexander Schmorell – OrthodoxWiki.

Mostly about identity politics

8 November 2019

Discussion at our Neoinklings literary coffee klatsch today revolved mostly around identity politics.

It started with David Levey bringing his copy of Stranger in a strange land, which we had discussed a bit last month.I had noted then that

I thought the first half of the book was OK, but the second half was boring and preachy and nothing much happened, just Earthmen telling each other ad nauseam how happy they were now that they were learning to speak Martian and adopting Martian culture at second hand, and passing it on to others third hand in the guise of a new religion.

David had got further in the book this time, and had nearly finished it, and found it interesting that the protagonist found that the best way to spread what he had learned from Martian culture on earth was to start a new religion.

What I liked about the first half of the book was the cultural reactions: a human with earthly ancestry brought up in an utterly alien culture, and how he reacted to earthly culture, and how earthlings reacted to him, and the difficulty they had in dealing with conflicting expectations. However, I do think that C.S. Lewis had already done that, and done it better, when Weston is interviewed by the Oyarsa of Malacandra in Out of the Silent Planet. Of course, though both Heinlein and Lewis located their alien culture on Mars, what they were really contrasting was an earthly ideal with an earthly reality. In a some ways Heinlein’s ideal culture is a reflection of Ubuntu, which is, in a sense, the exact opposite of identity politics. Identity politics is all about identity in distinction from others. Ubuntu, and Heinlein’s Martian culture, is more about the value of cooperation rather than competition.

Actually “ubuntu” means “humanity” or “humanness”. The irony I found in the second half of Heinlein’s book was that once it had got turned into a religion, it became a mark of identity for its followers, and so was transformed into a form of identity politics, and thus just the opposite of what Martian culture actually was (or at least Heinlein’s vision of it).

Janneke Weidema said the rise of identity politics was often the result of a powerless group asserting itself. This had happened in the Netherlands at the end of the 19th century, when the Doppers arose as a counter to the established Hervormde Kerk. Their trouble was that once St George had slain the dragon they needed to resurrect it in order to continue the fight, which had become an end in itself. That linked up with the thought of Abraham Kuyper, whose thought had become influential in certain South African universities, especially those controlled by the Broederbond, and became part of the philosophical underpinning for apartheid.

Duncan Reyburn mentioned a couple of books that dealt in some way with the question of identity politics. One was The madness of crowds by Douglas Murray. Though he did not agree with everything that Murray said, it was a useful introduction to the subject. Another book was The demons of liberal democracy by Adrian Pabst.

Duncan said that the problem with that one was that the meaning of “liberal” has changed. I am not so sure about that. The trouble with “liberal” is that it can mean just about anything. Recently someone asked a very strange (to me, at any rate) question on the Question and Answer web site Quora: What do white South Africans think of white liberals in Europe, the US, Australia, or Canada?

My answer (to save you the bother of clicking on the link) was:

In most cases probably nothing at all.

And in the case of the few who think about them at all, you’d probably get as many opinions as people you asked, including questions about how white liberals in those countries differ from liberals “of colour” (or “of color” in the case of the US), and also questions about the excessively wide range of meanings of “liberal” in those countries.

Because, apart from anything else, “liberal” means something different in each of the places mentioned. The Liberal Party in Australia, for example, is inextricably linked with predatory capitalism, In the UK the Liberals are primarily known for being anti-Brexit. In Canada they mainly seem to be associated with political corruption (to judge by what my Canadian friends post on Facebook), while what liberals are in the US is anybody’s guess. There the main thing about liberals in the USA seems to be that they are not conservatives, and the main thing about conservatives is that they are not liberals (that’s judging from questions asked on Quora).

My observation is that there are different kinds of liberalism, which are not necessarily compatible and should not be confused. There are political, theological and economic liberalism (the last often nowadays called neoliberalism). And theological liberals tend to be political conservatives and vice versa. Theological liberals are always changing their theology to fit the secular status quo, which is conservative by definition (they call this “making theology relevant”). Theological conservatives, on the other hand, are always trying to change the world to fit the vision, so tend to be more revolutionary in secular terms. G.K, Chesterton pointed this out more than a century ago. The book to read is Orthodoxy.

One more thing about identity politics, and then I’m done. When I think of identity politics the most outstanding example, which shapes my thinking, and was ever-present in the background for most of my life, is apartheid.  Apartheid was identity politics par excellence, the paradigm case. Under apartheid, it was absolutely essential that everyone have a racial identity. If you had a racial identity, you had life, without it you were a non-person. With some racial identities you could have a better life than others, but even the worst life was better than the non-personhood that resulted from lacking a racial identity. Yes, white privilege was a thing, and whiteness was a thing, and we were told to prize whiteness if we were white. That’s why I have no time for the discourse of those who want to make people conscious of their whiteness now, like a dog returning to its vomit. When I hear that kind of stuff I want to cry out with Bob Dylan, Oh no, no, no, no, I’ve been through this movie before.

Then David Levey asked what books we’d all been reading recently. Well I’ve just finished the ghost stories of Henry James, and I’ve said most of what I want to say about that in this review here. Janneke has been reading
A man of good hope, by Jonny Steinberg, the story of a man who grew up as a wandering refugee from Somalia. She had also been reading Quaker process and procedure.

Duncan Reyburn, apart from the books already mentioned, had been reading Sleep no more: Six murderous tales by P.D. James, the writer of detective fiction.

If I’ve forgotten any of the books we discussed, please add them in the comments.

Ghost stories and Henry James

4 November 2019

Ghost StoriesGhost Stories by Henry James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nearly 50 years ago someone found a copy of The Turn of the Screw in an old house where I was staying. I recognised the author as someone quite famous, and recalled that some of his books had been set for English literature classes at the university I attended, though I hadn’t known that he wrote horror stories. So I read it. After a couple of chapters it seemed familiar, and I realised that the plot was the same as that of a film I had seen about ten years previously, called The Innocents.

I was rather put off by the turbid (and turgid) style — he put pronouns in strange places, which made one read things that were not there, and the word order was very peculiar, but the story was interesting enough. I may, in reading the book, have confused my memory of the film with that of another near-contemporary film, The Servant. In both The Innocents and The Servant the theme was how servants corrupted the innocent, though in the former the innocents were children aged 8 and 10, and the servants were dead.

When I saw this volume of collected ghost stories by Henry James, I thought it might be interesting, and it was long enough since I had read The Turn of the Screw to want to read that one again. But having reached the end, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to read any more of Henry James. The last story in the volume, “The Jolly Corner” was excruciatingly boring, and could probably have been told better if cut down to two or three pages. It was lengthened by the need to read every sentence two or three times to find out what the author was saying.

While I was reading it I went to bed and thought I would read a few pages before going to sleep, but I accidentally knocked a copy of Pepys’s diary off the shelf, and read the preface and a few entries opf that instead. And O how refreshing it was to read lucid 17th-century prose instead of Henry James’s 19th-century verbiage.

When I was about 9 or 10 years old a school teacher used to read ghost stories to us, and part of the attraction, at that age, was how scary they were. They were set in unusual places and described unusual circumstances, and that in itself set the scene for unusual and scary happenings. Some of them were by M.R. James, which David Levey recommended at one of our literary coffee klatches, and I’ve said more about them in this article on Christianity and horror literature. Now I’ve become old and jaded, and it takes a lot to scare me. Instead I look for a meaning beyond the surface. A ghost story needs to be more than just scary, it needs some kind of symbolic meaning, which Henry James doesn’t really provide.

This, however, was one of those instances where the film was better than the book. The film told the story directly, rather than inundating it with a lorry-load of subordinate clauses.

View all my reviews

Inklings forum revived

23 October 2019

YahooGroups is dead: Long live

There have been several Internet mailing lists for discussing the literary works of the Inklings literary group, of whom the best known were C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Several of these mailing lists were hosted by YahooGroups, and last week’s news of the demise of YahooGroups prompted a hasty search for alternatives. One of these alternatives is, which is now the host of a new Inklings forum which is a combination of a couple of old ones on YahooGroups.

The old forums were Coinherence-l, for discussion of the works of Charles Williams, and NeoInklings (eldil) for discussion of the work of the Inklings generally.

The new forum on is just called Inklings — click on the link to find more.

To join the group as a mailing list, just send a blank e-mail message to


The Singularity and children’s literature

17 October 2019

I was looking at the question and answer web site Quora, and came across a question: What is the most horrible children’s book ever written?

My answer, without hesitation, was Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories. My cousins, who were staying with us when I was about 8 or 9 years old, had a copy of it, and it gave me nightmares. It was full of extremely moralistic stories where the actions of naughty children had the most horrifying consequences. As horror stories go, they were, without doubt, the most horrific and horrible I had ever read. The story of Doris’s voicebox has haunted me ever since.

I was somewhat surprised, however, to read some of the other answers to the Quora question. This one, by Trevor Farrell, answered: May I introduce you to Tootle?

The subtitle of the book was, I think, “the little train that wouldn’t stay on the rails”.

Tootle went to train school and learned all the lessons, like stopping for red flags and so on. The only lesson he could not learn was the importance of staying on the rails no matter what. He really liked to go off the rails into the fields and smell the flowers. So the people made a plan and next time Tootle jumped the rails there was someone behind every bush waving a red flag, and so Tootle learned his lesson about how important it was to stay on the rails no matter what.

I was introduced to Tootle in Standard 1 (Grade 3) at Fairmount School in Johannesburg when I was about 7-8 years old, and I loved it. For as long as I could remember I had loved trains, and I had written my own stories about trains. So I loved the story of Tootle and my only regret was that the book belonged to the school and I couldn’t take it home and read it again and again.

I did have another book about a train, Choo-Choo, the little engine who ran away. Unlike Tootle, Choo Choo did not go off the rails, but instead went off to explore a section of disused track, ran out of steam and got lost in the dark.

In addition to trains, I liked trams and trolley buses. I wasn’t so fond of oil buses, because their routes were not visible. In fact I liked trolley buses so much that when I grew up I got a job driving them.

I liked Choo Choo better than Tootle because Choo Choo, unlike Tootle, had learned the lesson of staying on the rails no matter what, but still had the desire to explore. When I drove trolley buses we used to get warnings, reprimands and severe reprimands for dewirements. My grandfather was an engine driver and once had a derailment at Drummond in the Valley of 1000 Hills, and went 220 yards off the track. His leg was broken so badly that he was unable to drive trains again, and spent the rest of his working life as a storekeeper in the workshops.

Bur Trevor Farrell writes in (1) What is the most horrible children’s book ever written? – Quora:

When my dad first read this to me as a child, he could hardly finish it before he set it aside in disgust and bashfully asked if he could find a better children’s book to read to me. It might have just been that Dad grew up as a pot smoking hippie, but for whatever reason, he stressed to me the importance of questioning leadership, demanding respectful treatment, and rebelling against unworthy authority.

For that matter, this was the same sort of goal he hoped to achieve with the generic “Dad Jokes”. By making claims that always held the same validity and structure, (which is to say, no validity and predictable structure) he’d hoped to make me a more critical thinker from a young age, from virtually every angle in my everyday life.

So what I ask myself is: did my enjoyment of reading Tootle as a child make me less of a critical thinker? What effect did such books have on my thinking?

I recall another book that I read in Standard 1.

I don’t remember the title, but it was a story about a country in which there were three shapes of people — square, round and triangular. One day the squares developed a machine to turn all the triangular and round people into squares, and forced them to go into that machine. Eventually they rebelled, put the machine into reverse and gave everyone their proper shapes again. That was in the late 1940s, and I’m sure it was written to warn kids about the communist totalitarian threat at the beginning of the Cold War, and the Nats hadn’t been in power in South Africa long enough to purge such pink liberalist indoctrination from the schools.

But even at the age of 7 or 8 I was pretty clear about the distinction between people and trains. That trains should stay on the rails was right, that people should be forced on to mental rails was something else, and wrong. . I never interpreted the story of Tootle in the way Trevor Farrell’s dad seems to have done.

I retain my fascination with networks. I’m sure that the same thing lies behind my interest in family history. Last week I followed up a link that someone had sent to me at the beginning of the year and discovered that we were fifth cousins once removed, and I discovered about 100 cousins that I hadn’t known I had. The web of kinship is also a network, like rail routes or bus routes.

So what is the relation between freedom and structure?

Can one actually have true freedom without structure?

Could we walk at all and move from place to place if we removed our rigid skeletons and were just jelly-like blobs?

A friend and mentor of mine, John Davies, former Anglican bishop of Shrewsbury, once gave the analogy of a competent pianist. He is free to play any piece of music he likes. What he is not free to do is to propel the piano at the audience like a tank. That is contrary to the nature and purpose of pianos, just as cavorting in the fields and smelling flowers as Tootle did is contrary to the nature and purpose of trains, and my grandfather’s broken leg was the result.

Which brings me to The Singularity.

Yesterday I finished reading a book called Singularity, in which one of the characters is a singularitarian, Singularitarians believe that a time is coming soon when artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, and autonomous machines will be making decisions about their and our future. Already there is talk of military drones deciding which targets to attack or not attack, independently of their human controllers.

I think that Tootle is a parable of exactly that scenario.


On writing: conflict and goals in fiction

7 October 2019

For the last few weeks we’ve been going to a writer’s support group that discusses writing fiction, We read each other’s writing and comment on it. The most recent discussion was on writing about conflict.

In most fiction, there is some kind of conflict, and this is what keeps the plot moving.

I’m not writing this as a report on our discussions, but rather some thoughts prompted by the discussion, and to ask others, whether writers or readers, what they think about these things.

One person said that conflict ensued when a character, usually the protagonist, was frustrated in their goals.

But I think that in a lot of fiction the protagonist doesn’t have a goal to start with. Things happen to the character, and those events create a conflict which gives the character a goal — to somehow resolve the conflict.

Someone else disagreed, and said that if the protagonist does not have a goal at the start of the story, that is a weak character and of no interest to the reader.

I’m not so sure about that. Perhaps that’s because I’m trying to write a sequel to my children’s story Of Wheels and Witches. You could say that it’s in the “children go on holiday and have an adventure” genre. There are hundreds of examples of that genre, from Enid Blyton to Alan Garner, from Arthur Ransome to E. Nesbit and C.S. Lewis.

In almost all examples of that genre there is no clear protagonist, because a group of children are involved, who are usually friends or siblings or a mixture of both,. And at the beginning of the story they usually have no clear goal other than to enjoy a holiday. Conflict and goals emerge later when something happens to them.

I kept thinking about what G.K. Chesterton had said:

… oddities only strike ordinary people. Oddities do not strike odd people. This is why ordinary people have a much more exciting time; while odd people are always complaining of the dulness of life. This is also why the new novels die so quickly, and why the old fairy tales endure for ever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal. But in the modern psychological novel the hero is abnormal; the centre is not central. Hence the fiercest adventures fail to affect him adequately, and the book is monotonous. You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons. The fairy tale discusses what a sane man will do in a mad world. The sober realistic novel of to-day discusses what an essential lunatic will do in a dull world.

There are, of course, novels and comics about superheroes, who have extraordinary powers. They are obviously strong characters and probably have all kinds of goals right from the start. But not all books have to be about such characters. And even Superman has to have kryptonite to make the conflict believable.

Do you need conflict on the first page to make the reader interested?

I once tried to analyse a couple of books (of the “children’s holiday adventure” genre) that I loved as a child, The Secret of Kilimooin (the first Enid Blyton book I read) and The Mountain of Adventure (the first one I owned). One thing I can add to what I wrote there is that in both those cases the actual adventure only started about halfway through the book. There was none of the currently fashionable in medias res “action (or conflict) on the first page”. Yet children still enjoyed them.

Though Enid Blyton’s dialogue was atrocious, children still read her books and liked them. And that brings to mind a couple of other things. I seem to recall that as a child my thought about the dialogue was that the children in the books spoke like that because they were English children, and perhaps that one ought to talk like that if one wanted to have adventures. My mother did once come down on me like a ton of bricks when I used the phrase “ever so”. And the food porn in Enid Blyton’s books was perhaps there because they were written when Britain was still subject to wartime food rationing.

Another book I mentioned at the meeting was Gulliver’s Travels. If Gulliver had any goals at the beginning of the story, they were swept away by the events that took place. It’s a classic example of what Chesterton was talking about — extraordinary events happening to ordinary people. Someone at the meeting said that that was satire, and people didn’t read it for the story, but rather read it for the satire. But no, I read it several times as a teenager, and the satire, like that in Northanger Abbey, went right over my head. I read and re-read Gulliver’s Travels because the more I saw of some people the more I liked my horse.

The software I (sometimes) use in my attempts to write fiction is called yWriter, and I find it quite useful because it breaks up writing into chapters and scenes which can then be moved around easily. But it also makes provision for attributing goals to each character, and in every chapter and scene in which that character appears. And I’m never sure of what to do with that.

I had to resort to Wikipedia to find examples of novels that began in medias res with action on the first page.

Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.”

But I don’t think I’ve read any of those.

Firestarter by Stephen King starts in medias res and has a character with extraordinary powers, though the protagonist is really her father, who is not a strong character, but does have a goal — to protect his daughter.

One of my favourite novels by Charles Williams begins in dramatic fashion, with what is perhaps one of the most attention-grabbing first lines in fiction, “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse.” But the corpse has no goals, and in the end turns out to be only a minor character. The true goals and conflict only become apparent later in the story.

Another of Charles Williams’s novels, The Place of the Lion, begins in medias res with a lioness roaring in the Hertfordshire countryside, but her goals only become apparent later. The scene shifts to two friends waiting for a bus that doesn’t arrive. One suggests that they give up waiting and walk in the direction they want to go and let the bus catch them up, to which the other replies, “The chief use of the material world is that one can just occasionally say that in truth. Yes, let’s.” One is the protgonist, and a strong character, and the other is weak, but nothing of that is revealed until several pages further on, and the goal is vague — walk in the direction the bus is travelling, or walk to meet it. It is the events they encounter in their casually chosen direction that produce the conflict, give rise to the goals, and drive the plot.

C.S. Lewis’s Out of the silent planet does, admittedly begin with the frustration of one of the protagonist’s goals. As with many of the children’s nove’s he is on holiday, a walking tour to be precise, and his goal is to reach a village to stay the night before it gets dark. His goal is frustrated by his being whisked off in a spaceship to an unknown planet instead. But his main goal in the story arises out of that, and is not apparent in the first chapter.

So I’m still not convinced that it is essential in writing fiction to have a strong protagonist with goals on the first page, and that conflict is generated by those goals being frustrated. I think that Chesterton’s scenario is equally valid — that conflict is generated when extraordinary and unexpected things happen to ordinary people, and that goals can just as easily be generated by conflict as the other way round.