Archive for November, 2011

Anyone fancy a pint?

I thought that, just for one post at least, I’ll take the advice of WordPress and post a few pictures for a change. So, here are a few pictures of my local pub.

(Obviously, these were taken at different times of the year, and in different lights. Monet had his Rouen Cathedral, I have my local pub…)


PS (added 3rd December 2011): And here’s one of me in the pub (not the one above, but a nearby one) being, apparently, my usual argumentative self:

Some useful advice from Word Press

When I go into my dashboard, I find some no doubt well-intentioned advice from WordPress:

Blogs are not just for long posts. Why not post a photo or video instead?

Well, I enjoy writing long posts, right? Dear me!

“Effi Briest” by Theodor Fontane

As part of the German literature Month organized by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzie’s Literary Life, I read recently Theodore Fontane’s Effi Briest. Sadly, due to various other commitments, I am a bit late on reporting on my reactions to the book, but I trust I am not too late.

This novel, like the Spanish novel La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas, is often ranked by its admirers alongside Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, two of the mightiest peaks of nineteenth century literature, and I am not sure that such comparisons does this novel any favours. It is not to criticise Fontane to say that he does not see so deeply into his characters as does Tolstoy: no novelist does. (In my reading experience, at least.) The comparison with Madame Bovary may seem on the surface more attractive, but once again, I don’t think it is to Fontane’s advantage. Flaubert’s novel, as well as being about a specific group of characters, is also a profound meditation on the nature of human aspirations in a world in which there does not appear to be anything to aspire towards: Fontane’s novel seems to me more modest in its artistic scope. None of this is to criticise Fontane, of course: not ranking with the best is not in itself a shortcoming. There is much to admire here – the pacing, the deft handling of symbols and imagery, the elegance and the polish of the structure, My impression – at least for now, a few weeks after reading – is that of a novel of comparatively modest artistic aims (though immaculately executed), but lacking either the piercing depth of vision of Tolstoy, or the sad and lyrical contemplation we find in Flaubert of the seeming futility of human affairs.

Effi, when we first meet her, is a charming and vivacious seventeen-year-old, not quite an adult, but not a child either. She reminded me at times of the equally charming Sophie in the Richard Strauss – Hugo von Hofmannsthal opera Der Rosenkavalier. It does come as a bit of a shock, at least for the modern reader, when we discover in the opening chapters that she is to be married off. Not that Effi is averse to this, but it is quite clear that she has not sufficient experience of life to make an informed decision in this respect. Unlike Emma Bovary, Effi doesn’t have time for such sentimentalities as mere love: social status is more important for her (as it is for Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier), and, given her background, this is not really very surprising. But where Sophie in Strauss’ opera does indeed find love and discover its importance, Fate is not so kind with Effi. She marries the middle-aged von Instetten, an aristocrat, and an ambitious civil servant.

There are, however, complications. Von Instetten had been in love with Effi’s mother, but they had not married because they did not have the requisite funds required to maintain their social status. Effi, we are told, is physically much like her mother. To what extent is Effi but a surrogate for her mother in her husband’s eyes? Or, for that matter, in her mother’s eyes? One can imagine what Henry James might have made of this situation, but this is not Fontane’s theme: having introduced this element, he moves Effi into a new environment after her marriage, and her parents appear again only in the final stages of the novel.

Von Enstetten cares deeply about his career, and about the impression he makes where it matters. And he expects his young wife to present a face that will be consistent with his current position, and also with the position he hopes to achieve. At all costs, his wife must be, like himself, correct. He recognises, of course, that Effi is still immature, but he feels it his duty to educate her: Crampas, a womanising middle-aged major who moves into town, is quite correct in describing von Instetten as a “pedagogue”.

Effi, naturally, feels out of place, and is bored. Her husband is not unkind, but he is in every respect “correct”, and nothing more. There is never any hint of his displaying unseemly emotion (not that Effi would have cared for that anyway), or, indeed, any emotion at all: his aspirations are fixed on his career, to the exclusion of everything else. And Effi is seen but as a wax doll, who needs to be modelled into a figure suitable for presentation as wife of a senior civil servant.

The house they lives in appears to be haunted by a Chinaman who had been brought into this German town, and who is as alienated from the others in death as he had been in life: not having been Christian, he is buried outside the churchyard. Effi is frightened, but her husband, while not dismissing the possibility of the existence of the ghost, has little patience with her concerns: what do such things as ghosts matter when all that is really important is his career?

Not surprisingly, none of this makes for an ideal marriage, and Effi is easy pickings for the experienced womaniser, Crampas.  Effi soon regrets the affair, and is relieved to move to Berlin, away from Crampas. But the past doesn’t die: von Instetten discovers the affair of some seven years earlier, and despite, by his own admission, not feeling any great sense of shame or of outrage, he does the right thing: whatever else he may be, he is always correct.

There is much to admire in this novel – the pacing, the deft handling of symbols and imagery, the elegance and the polish of the structure – but the characters never reveal any hidden depth, or display any unexpected shaft of thought or of action. They are perfectly consistent in themselves, but they lack the richness one finds in Tolstoy or in Flaubert. Not here such moments of revelation as when Vronsky feels shame for the first time in his life, and, unable to bear such a feeling, attempts suicide; or when Karenin, worn down by his cares, sees his wife’s illegitimate baby and suddenly bursts into a smile. Neither do we find such revelations as the depth of feeling the apparently insipid Charles Bovary has for his wife, and his insupportable grief after her demise. None of the characters here ever surprises us: throughout, each character thinks and acts precisely as we would expect them to from their first appearance.

Fontane adopts a somewhat detached, distant tone, refusing to depict characters’ emotions openly when they are particularly strong. Take for instance the scene when Effi meets her daughter again, and finds that her daughter has been instructed to keep her distance: beyond telling us that Effi faints, Fontane himself tells us nothing of the emotional turmoil that we know must be going on inside her head. Effi expresses herself in a long theatrical monologue, but the very artificiality of this technique creates a sense of detachment that keeps the reader at a distance.  One need only compare this to Tolstoy’s depiction of Anna’s emotional turmoil to see the difference.

Of course, Flaubert cultivated a detachment as well, but, as I argue here, here, and here, there is far more to Flaubert than merely a cultivated detachment. I sense little behind the detachment in Fontane, but I could be wrong: as I said in an earlier post, novels can leave an aftertaste that can be unexpectedly different from what one experiences during the actual reading, and it remains to be seen what sort of aftertaste Effi Briest will leave. But for the moment, while it is admirable in many respects, it seems to me to lack the emotional response that seems to me ideally required for such a story, or much awareness of the depth and complexity of human characters. Everything is in its right place, it is all correct: a bit like von Instetten, actually.

(It is fair to point out that others see the novel somewhat differently, and I would certainly recommend posts on this novel in the blogs Book Around the Corner, A Common Reader, Iris on Books, and, of course, by the participants of the “readalong”.)

Confessions of a Whisky Snob; or, The Aftertaste

I am a long-standing member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, if, indeed, “long-standing” is the adjective I am looking for. Every once in a while, I like going into the Members’ Rooms in Central London to try out a few malts: admittedly, the rooms at the Society headquarters in Edinburgh are larger and plusher – indeed, these rooms are far and away the most civilised place I’ve ever been pissed in – but given where I live, the London rooms are more convenient.

As with any society, and, indeed, with any self-respecting – not to say self-regarding – society member, there are certain dos and don’ts. This first is not to spell “whisky” with an “e”: “whiskey” with an “e”, refers only to Irish whiskey, or to American bourbon, but not to Scotch. This is one of several rules we have made up so we can laugh at those who don’t know better.

The second is, you do not put ice into a malt whisky. Never. And you don’t chill it either. You only chill or put ice into stuff that you don’t really want to taste. Like coca-cola, say (let’s not mention brand names here), or lager, either of which would be disgusting if drunk unchilled. But malt whisky one wants to taste. So no chilling, and no ice. Nor, indeed, anything else, other than water – and that only at room temperature. I was at the society once when I heard some unfortunate soul ask the barman for ice: “We do not serve ice here, sir,” came the rather frosty reply. “Ha!” I thought to myself, “ignoramus!” And felt awfully smug.

And then, of course, the tasting. But before one so much as takes a single mouthful, one has to smell it – take in deep draughts of the aroma, savour the scent, or, as we aspiring experts like to call it, the “nose”. And only when one has done this for a while, does one begin to taste. Gulping down a dram without so much as a sniff is very bad form.

I’m one of those who like to take a sip before adding water, just to see how the taste changes once the water is added, and, also, to see how much water I need to add in the first place. For water does usually need to be added, if you are drinking a malt that is at cask strength. And adding the water often changes the taste considerably. And then, you roll each mouthful about the tongue, so that the taste buds that detect different flavours in different parts of the tongue all have an equal chance of getting what they can.

One is, at this point, expected to say things like “Aroma of freshly mown grass after a light spring shower … initial taste of toffee and marzipan, possibly liquorice allsorts, with surprising hints of apple, and of fruit salad … soon, smokier elements come to the fore … flavour of burnt wood … somewhat medicinal undertaste, like dettol, perhaps, or coal tar soap …” And so on. (I have requested the society to be included in the panel that writes the notes on the latest bottlings – my qualification being that after a few drams I can write bollocks as well as anyone – but I am still, much to my chagrin, waiting to be invited.)

And even when the mouthful has been gulped, we aren’t finished: there’s the aftertaste. And here, after some 600 or so words, I come to the nub of this post: the aftertaste. With certain malts, you don’t get an aftertaste, but with the better ones, you most certainly do. After it has gone down the gullet – sometimes, long after – the mouth is filled with a taste that one had not detected while it had still been on the tongue. I am not sure why this happens, but I know it does. I have experienced it even with my very first mouthful of my first drink of the evening, so it’s hard to put it down merely to alcohol-inspired hallucination.

Something similar happens with books too, I think. There are certain books that leave very little aftertaste at all, if any. For instance, it was only a few weeks ago that I read – and, at the time of reading, enjoyed – A Perfect Spy by John le Carré, but it has not left behind much of an impression: I do not find my mind going back to it, and neither does any scene, any piece of imagery, any incident or character ever return to the mind unbidden. Or even, for that matter, bidden. On the other hand, something like Demons, which I read this summer, has a very considerable aftertaste: it is not so much that elements of that book keep returning to mind – it is  more that they’d never gone away in the first place: they have become firmly lodged there. And as these elements of the novel persist in the mind, they resonate in unexpected ways, and take on surprising new shapes. One doesn’t finish a book such as this merely at the final page: one continues to experience it long afterwards.

I am not sure what it is that causes this “aftertaste”, either with whisky or with books. What mysterious element is it that allows some books to take permanent possession of one’s mind, while other simply slip though without leaving a mark? It’s not always a question of literary quality: there are many books I have read of undoubted literary quality that haven’t left much of a mark. And neither is it a question of the height of one’s brow: Sherlock Holmes stories make no demand on the intellect at all, and yet I cannot think of any literature that is a more permanent – or more welcome – fixture inside my head.

Much though I love malt whisky, it must be said that the aftertaste of a book lasts much, much longer. It can last one’s entire life. People who don’t read fiction often wonder what the attraction can be of reading about made-up people: some even find the activity frivolous – sometimes, reprehensibly so. It is difficult explaining to such people why accounts of people who have never existed other than in the imagination can have so powerful an effect on one. And yet it does. Hamlet contemplating Yorick’s skull; Prince Andrei lying wounded on the field in Austerlitz, staring up at the vast immensity of the skies and wondering why he had never noticed it before; Hedda Gabler setting fire to the precious manuscript … Neither Hamlet nor Prince Andrei nor Hedda Gabler have existed in reality, and yet, these events, these moments, become permanent fixtures of one’s mind, and take on a reality that belies their fictional status. I am not sure why. When Tennyson visited Lyme Regis, his interest was not in the history of the place, but in the fiction: he wanted to trace all the places that featured in Austen’s Persuasion: he wanted particularly to see the steps where Louisa Musgrove had fallen – a made-up event in the life of a made-up character exciting his imagination more than anything reality had to offer. In the Spanish town of El Toboso, there is a museum dedicated to Dulcinea, a character who, even in a fiction, did not exist.

When something enriches one’s life, it is hard to know how to describe that enrichment to those who do not see the attraction. To go back to Austen again, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other. And the enrichment that can come from fiction, it seems to me, goes beyond mere pleasure. But I find the nature of this enrichment difficult to explain, just as I find it difficult to explain the nature of the enrichment I find, say, in certain landscapes, in certain music, in the company of those to whom I am close. But explanation is not really required. The aftertaste that fiction can leave behind can become part of the very fabric of one’s being – in ways that are perhaps not even worth explaining to those who see in it merely frivolity.

I bet these killjoys disapprove of malt whisky as well.

Was Heathcliff black?

The latest film adaptation of Wuthering Heights casts a black actor as Heathcliff, and I, for one, can’t help wondering why this hasn’t been tried out before.

In the novel, Heathcliff’s racial origins are not specified, but the indications that he is different, possibly racially different, can hardly be missed. He is referred to throughout as “dark”: admittedly, that does not tell us much, as many white Anglo-Saxons can also be described as having a “dark” complexion, but Mr Earnshaw’s description of him – “as dark almost as if it came from the devil” – does suggest that his skin colour was conspicuously different from that of the others.  When the child is first brought into Wuthering Heights, he is described as speaking “gibberish”. This could, indeed, be Romany (Heathcliff is taken by many readers to be of gypsy origin), or it could be a foreign language: we cannot be sure. But, rather interestingly, the child is initially referred to as “it”: Nelly only starts referring to Heathcliff by the pronoun “he” after he, it, is christened. That Heathcliff, right from the start, was seen very much as an “other”, as “not one of our kind”, seems inescapable.

Later in the novel, Nelly Dean says to him: “Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen?” Nelly may not have known how Chinese people differ from Indian people physically: if she had, she would not have suggested that Heathcliff could be of Chinese or of Indian descent. But her speculation does seem to suggest that she saw Heathcliff as physically different, very different, from the others.

Of course, it may be objected that if Emily Brontë had intended Heathcliff to be black, she would have told us so openly, but I don’t think this holds. In the first place, Emily Brontë tells the story through voices other than her own; and in the second place, this is a novel in which large gaps are quite deliberately left in the narrative: if Emily Brontë is happy to leave unspecified even so important an aspect of the plot as the source of Heathcliff’s wealth, why should we expect her to be specific about such matters as Heathcliff’s race?

We shouldn’t really be surprised that Heathcliff’s racial origins are not made specific in the novel. The characters living in this isolated part of the country, and in that age, would not have been familiar with anyone outside their own racial stock, and would have been unlikely to have had the vocabulary to describe people of different races to any degree of accuracy. I don’t know that we can expect even Mr Lockwood to describe racial differences accurately. But in any case, Heathcliff’s exact racial origin – gypsy, Indian, or black – isn’t really so important: what is important is that he should be different from the others, and be seen as such, both physically and in other respects.

In a film, of course, there is no room for vagueness in the matter of Heathcliff’s race: some decision must be made on this point, and casting him as black seems to me a perfectly reasonable decision, and quite consistent with what’s in the text. Why shouldn’t Heathcliff be black? He was, after all, picked up in Liverpool, which was at the time a major centre of the slave trade: there were many black people in Liverpool at the time. He could have been of Indian origin as well, for that matter, given that Liverpool was a major port, and given further the large number of Lascars working on the ships. (Heathcliff is, indeed, referred to at one point quite specifically as a “little Lascar” – i.e. an Indian, or, more generally, someone from South-East Asia: once again, we shouldn’t expect precision on this point.)

I haven’t yet seen the latest film. Of all the classic 19th century English novels, Wuthering Heights has, perhaps, fared the worst in adaptations: even the famous William Wyler film featuring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, fine though it is in its own right, hardly reflects the intensely violent and disturbing nature of Emily Brontë’s work. Whether this latest version will succeed better than its predecessors, I do not know. What worries me is not that a black actor has been cast as Heathcliff, but that they’d make too much of the racial difference, and make it a drama specifically about race: but I hope I’m wrong. For, despite the countless adaptations that have been made to date, there is a good film – perhaps even a great film – still to be made from Wuthering Heights. But such a film will have to forgo romance; be brave enough to allow its leading lady to die half way through; and look unblinkingly into the dark, demented heart of this extraordinary work.

“A Hero of Our Time” by Mikhail Lermontov

What is it with Russians and duelling? There’s scarcely any major Russian writer of fiction who hasn’t depicted duelling at some time or other. There’s Pierre’s duel with Dolohov in Tolstoy’s War and Peace; there’s the duel Bazarov fights with Pavel Petrovich in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons; Dostoyevsky depicted duels in Demons, and also in The Brothers Karamazov (in the chapters dealing with Zossima’s early life); Chekhov actually wrote a story called “The Duel”, and later gave us an offstage duel in the final act of Three Sisters. And, of course, there are perhaps the two most famous fictional duels of them all – Onegin’s duel with Lensky in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and Pechorin’s duel with Grushnitsky in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Both these fictional duels have non-fictional resonance: both Pushkin and Lermontov were killed in actual duels. I cannot think of any other national literature in which the duel plays so prominent a role.

Lermontov possibly ranks with Pushkin and Gogol as the most influential of Russian authors – insofar as they effectively kick-started into existence what, in retrospect, is possibly the most extraordinary flowering of literary greatness in modern times. But of the three, Lermontov is perhaps the least known in the West, possibly because, in addition to his poems (which, incidentally, I have never seen translated), he left behind before his untimely death only a single work of prose fiction – A Hero of Our Time.

I had read this novel way back when I was still at school, when, having developed a fascination with 19th century Russian literature, I was determined to read everything Russian that I could get my hands on. But inevitably, at that age, the mind is not prepared to take everything in to an adequate level, and this one had certainly slipped through my net. So, in effect, if not in terms of strict literal fact, this latest reading was my first reading, and I couldn’t help wondering why I had left this work for so long.

The parallels between A Hero of Our Time and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin are fairly obvious: at the centre of each is a man who, for all his charisma, is detached from life, who is, indeed, terminally bored with it. Both kill in duels people who are foolish, and who are perhaps no great loss to the world, but who, for all that, did not deserve to die: neither appears to display any great remorse for their deed – at least, not openly, and perhaps not even to themselves. But neither is perhaps as detached from life as they would like to think themselves; and by the end, both are defeated, for even as they are rejecting life, they are themselves rejected. But while the parallels are striking, Pechorin is no mere imitation of Onegin: for while Onegin seems for much of the novel to be in a state of inertia, Pechorin throws himself headlong into endless action, into daredevil adventures – not necessarily because he enjoys adventure, but for reasons that Pechorin himself cannot quite understand. Staving off boredom may be one possible motive, but it doesn’t seem an adequate explanation, for even with all this endless whirlwind of activity, Pechorin remains bored.

Pechorin is an enigma, even to himself. And it is this enigma that gives the character, and the novel, such fascination. The novel is narrated from several perspectives: first from a Russian traveller in the Caucasus, and then, from Maxim Maximych, who had formerly served with Pechorin in the army, and who appears virtually to hero-worship his former comrade. But when Pechorin himself appears on the scene, he does not reciprocate Maxim Maximych’s warmth of feeling: Pechorin appears a cold fish, quite different from the picture Maxim Maxymich had presented. Then, for the rest of the novel, we hear Pechorin’s own voice: we are presented with his diaries, and in these diaries, we are taken back in time to before the events narrated by Maxim Maximych. And the voice we hear is of a man who is bored with life, and with all life has to offer; a man who looks down contemptuously on all that is around him, feeling himself superior to everything. But at the same time, he is surprisingly sensitive to landscape, to beauty. He is a man who is driven by forces that puzzle even himself. Like Onegin, Pechorin discovers himself experiencing intense emotions that he had thought were beneath him, and despite his intelligence and his self-knowledge, he cannot understand why.

Even to someone such as myself who knows Russian literature only through translation, and who, for all his enthusiasm, is by no means an expert, it is hard to over-estimate the influence of this book on the literary flowering that followed. The “superfluous man”, the man alienated from his surroundings, who feels himself both intellectually and morally superior, but who, perhaps for that very reason, is profoundly bored with everything, and who fails ultimately to understand either the world around him or even himself, is a figure who, in various forms, has virtually haunted Russian literature. Characters as diverse as Bazarov, Dolohov, Stavrogin, etc. are cut from the same cloth as Pechorin; and the sinister Solyony in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, believing in his stupidity that such a character is admirable and to be imitated, imagines himself a Lermontovian hero.

The setting too, of the Caucasus, resonates throughout Russian literature: Tolstoy especially was drawn to it, from such early works such as The Cossacks to the late masterpiece Hadji Murat. The Romantic landscape of this region seems to represent a certain state of mind, a certain freedom away from the restrictive social codes of Moscow or of Petersburg. But no-one, not even Tolstoy, describes this landscape as well as does Lermontov: even in translation, it is exquisite. (I read the excellent translation by Natasha Randall, published by Penguin Classics.)

The climactic duel scene is breathtaking. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the duel has loomed so large in the Russian literary imagination, given that two of most seminal works of Russian literature – Eugene Onegin and A Hero of Our Times – each presents us with such memorable duels. The duel in Eugene Onegin took place in the snow: here, the duel is magnificently staged at the edge of a cliff, so that whoever is shot will inevitably fall from a great height, and the death could be written off as an accident. Lermontov stages this scene with all the skills of a master narrator: even as masterly a storyteller as Dumas may have been proud of the set-up, and of the sustained tension throughout these pages. But ultimately, the focus is not really on the narrative: however exciting the events may be – and they are, frequently, breathlessly exciting – it is Pechorin’s state of mind, the psychology of the “superfluous man”, that takes centre stage.

Rather curiously, the novel does not end after the duel, and after Pechorin’s subsequent loss: although it is hard not to see this entire sequence as forming the climax of the work, both thematically and in terms of narrative, there is a further chapter entitled “The Fatalist”. This chapter is certainly interesting in itself, and would have made a tremendous impact had it appeared earlier in the novel, but coming as it does after the major events of the narrative, it did appear to me somewhat anti-climactic. However, this impression might change once I have allowed the book to resonate in my mind a bit longer. This reservation apart, A Hero of Our Time seems an extraordinary work, and one I know I will return to again: I have, after all, barely begun to understand it.

[PS added Monday, 7th November, 2011: There are some fascinating posts on this novel here, here and here in the blog “His Futile Preoccupations”; and also here, in the blog “Book Around the Corner”.]

In praise of Dracula: a belated Halloween post

It was in Blackpool I first encountered Dracula. Not in the flesh, of course, because as we all know vampires don’t really exist. But no matter how insistently I kept saying that to myself, I couldn’t dispel the terror behind that nagging thought: “But what if they did?”

I was nine years old at the time, which may count perhaps as something of a mitigating factor. And it was in the Chamber of Horrors of a deliciously tacky waxwork exhibition on Blackpool Pleasure Beach that used to call itself Louis Tussauds.

To keep myself on the safe side of libel laws, I think I should point out that Louis Tussauds have now been taken over by Madame Tussauds, and, although I have not been to this place since the takeover, I have no reason whatever to believe that any element of tack attaches itself to this waxwork exhibition nowadays. No, indeed. No element of tack whatever.

I can’t help feeling, however, that waxworks should be a bit tacky, a bit seedy. And that the highlight of a visit to a wax museum should be a gloriously lurid Chamber of Horrors. That’s certainly the way Louis Tussauds used to be, and if the establishment has now become nobler, exhibiting likenesses of the latest wholesome showbiz celebrities rather than exciting the visitors’ baser instincts with vulgar and gratuitous displays of horror, then, alongside the undoubted gains, there may perhaps also be a certain loss. For I find it hard to imagine how even the most edifying likenesses of Posh & Becks & co could make the sort of impact that tableau of Dracula had made on me that day.

Memory can, as we all know, play the most outrageous tricks, but what I seem to remember of that tableau was a woman lying in bed, her skin a ghastly green, and with two lurid punctures in her neck dripping crimson. And next to her stood the Count himself, sated with blood, his face marked with a frown and a wrinkle and a sneer of cold command. I was horrified, in a way I never could be now in my middle age. And I was fascinated.

What perversity is it in our natures that makes us seek after that which horrifies and repels? The rational reaction to my terror in Blackpool that day would have been to avoid such things altogether. But no – the effect it had on me was quite the opposite. In those days, Scottish Television used to show Hammer Horror films on late nights on Fridays, and my parents, who took their parenting responsibilities somewhat more seriously than I might have wished, would not allow me to stay up for them. (Indeed, I don’t think they’d have allowed me into Louis Tussauds had they known at the time what it contained.) So I used to read the blurbs in TV Times, and roll those marvellous titles around my tongue – The Curse of Frankenstein, The Gorgon, Brides of Dracula… I used to envy my good friend Terence: his parents, unlike mine, let him stay up for these films, and every Monday morning, at playtime, he used to tell me what he had seen the previous Friday night. It may not seem like much now, but it was then: what Terence told me, coupled with what I had seen in Louis Tussauds in Blackpool, fired my imagination. At night, I would lie awake in my bed in the dark, imagining every creak of the floorboards and every gurgle in the water pipes to betoken the imminent approach of Count Dracula himself, whose deadly bite would drain my blood, and turn my skin ghastly green. Yes, my parents were in the next room, I knew, but what could even parents do against the power of the Count?

Of course, with the passing of the years, for better or for worse, our imaginations learn not to be frightened of vampires. We are frightened instead of more realistic matters – paying our bills, holding on to our jobs, maintaining our health, and so on. All very mundane, sadly. But the imagination is a fine thing, and the more beset we are by real everyday worries, the more attractive seems that flight of imagination that takes us back to our childhood fears. And, for me anyway, it doesn’t take too great an exercise of the imagination to return to that world in which Count Dracula really was a figure to inspire terror. Although I cannot return to feeling as I did when I was nine, even the act of remembering the fears I once had felt is strangely pleasurable.

But enough of this psychobabble. I don’t know why it is I still enjoy reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or why I enjoy watching those splendid Hammer Horror films. That I enjoy them is reason enough for my continuing to enjoy them. The opening section of Stoker’s novel, especially, remains terrifying for reasons I am not prepared to speculate upon. That entire section in which Jonathan Harker travels through Borgo pass into Castle Dracula, and then effectively finds himself a prisoner in that fearsome place, still sends up the spine shivers of supernatural terror, and reminds me that I am perhaps not too far removed from that boy who used to be terrified by the gurgles in the water pipes. Admittedly, the level of intensity of the early section of the novel is not maintained throughout, but there are, nonetheless, splendidly terrifying passages, not least the superbly staged finale where we return once again to Castle Dracula.

No adaptation has, to my mind, quite captured the atmosphere of the novel. I suppose the closest is the BBC adaptation from the 1970s: the casting of Louis Jourdain as the Count was certainly unexpected, but it paid off handsomely. The old Universal films with Bela Lugosi seem hopelessly stiff and stagey these days: they certainly haven’t lasted as well as the wonderful Frankenstein films from the same studio, with Boris Karloff as the monster giving one of cinema’s finest performances.

But the finest screen Dracula, certainly for me and, I suspect, for many others as well, is surely Christopher Lee. It was 1958 when the Hammer Dracula (US title: Horror of Dracula) first hit the screens, and while it was quite different from the novel on which it was based, it was, and remains still, a considerable achievement in its own right. Above all, it fixed for ever our mental picture of Dracula: from now on, Dracula is the suave, aristocratic and darkly menacing figure presented by Christopher Lee. There have been many other actors since who have played the Count, but none has supplanted Lee in this role.

The surprise is not that sequels followed, but that it took so long for the first one to turn up: it was the mid-60s by the time Dracula, Prince of Darkness appeared, and, for my money at any rate, it is even finer than its predecessor. The sequence in the first half of the film where the four travellers find themselves in Dracula’s castle is still weird and eerie, and retains its ability to frighten, and to cause unease. There are many other splendid scenes as well –  not least the scene taken straight from Chapter 3 of Wuthering Heights in which Helen (Barbara Shelley), now undead, appears at the window, begging to be let in. Add to that the finest staking scene of any vampire film, and we have what, for me at least, is among the great classics of horror cinema.

The following sequels (five more featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula) did not quite maintain this standard, although there remains even in the least of them much that I find enjoyable. But then again, I am a diehard aficionado. Ah – those waxworks in Louis Tussauds have much to answer for!

“As long as they’re reading something…”

Is reading something – anything – better than reading nothing?

I have often heard it asserted that it is, but I don’t really see why. Given some of the utter rubbish I find myself flicking through when I am bookshop-browsing, it seems to me that doing nothing and staring vacantly into space is a far better use of one’s time than reading some of the tosh that’s out there.

(Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with reading tosh if that what one wants to do – but I don’t see why that should be considered a more worthwhile activity than not reading anything at all.)