When you read one book, but can’t stop thinking of another

It’s an act of literary bigamy. That moment when you pick up your new read but can’t help but contrast it against that other book you read.

And it happened to me this week.

I’m not going to review the new read because I don’t think I can do it objectively. I’ve got no bones about doing a ‘bad’ review, but I do have issues when I know that I’ve read one book in a spirit of heightened critical awareness.

So what can I do? Well, I can tell you all about the book that I couldn’t stop thinking of and some thoughts this process has triggered in me. The original book was War Horse by Micheal Morpurgo. It’s an inestimable book and one that’s repeatedly defined my attitude towards children’s literature as a whole. I don’t think I’d be far off if I described it as nearly wholly defining and creating a genre of its very own. There’s a totality to War Horse that few other books have achieved. Harry Potter, yes, and Twilight and  probably The Hunger Games also make the list. They’re all books that have transferred successfully to another medium and been integrated into our social consciousness. I’d imagine there’s not many people out there who haven’t heard of War Horse, whether that’s from reading it, seeing it, or witnessing Joey rearing on top of the National Theatre during the Jubilee boat thing on the Thames.

I know there’s another instance where I do a similar thing. With Elinor M. Brent-Dyer reaching such stupendous heights of creation in The Chalet School in Exile, I know I’ve read books from Angela Brazil (published during a similar timeframe in World War Two) and done nothing but compare them against the stunning polemic in Exile. 

There’s a theory that there are only seven plots in the world, so if you subscribe to that school of thought, in a way we’ve already read every book that’s been written – and we’ve also read all of those that haven’t been written. So maybe what I’m actually doing here, when I read something and compare it sharply back to a previous book, is that I’m actually trying to replicate the way that previous book made me feel. Maybe I’m trying to subconsciously recreate the ‘hit’ of that book and experience an inevitable disappointment when it does not occur.

(Maybe this is just all part of the addiction, the curve and cycle of your reading habit, how you long  to recreate that moment when you broke and wept and cleansed your head of all the pain and darkness in your mind just because of the way a stranger ordered some letters on a page).

So I put my other book down, I step away from it and I make a decision to read it in the future when my mind is less clouded.

And I pick up my copy of War Horse.

Film review : War Horse

I’ve written about my love for Michael Morpurgo on numerous occasions and in particular the gorgeous War Horse which I’ve been lucky enough to both read and see the play. Now, at last, I’ve watched the film.

Essentially the strapline to this film could have been “War Horse : IT’S TIME TO CRY AND WEEP AT FUTILITY AND NOBILITY AND PONIES AND STUFF”

Now I do realise that not everybody may approach this film from the same angle of PONIES and with a brain that melts into mush at Noble Deeds Being Done By Noble People. It’s terribly schmaltzy in places and it’s very idealised. The opening part of the film is sort as if Richard Curtis’ vision of London has been simply transposed onto the West Country.

Regardless of this, the film is very lyrically shot. It’s quite beautifully framed in places, and the editing is superb. Spielberg, for all his occasional hamminess, is a master of visual construction. Certain shots, like the moment at the windmill, are superb and also quite poetical. There’s a fluidity to Spielberg’s storytelling here that is very very gorgeous.

But oh God, this film made me cry. It made me sob and sob and sob. The horse(s?) they got to play Joey is/are superb. And the whole No Man’s Land scene? Amazing. Awful, amazing, awful, amazing.

I think if you’re caught by this story in the first place, you’re caught. You’re caught whether Joey grows up in page, stage or film and each version of War Horse has both merits and faults. For me, although I loved the film, it’s the play. The play wins . It’s magic. Pure theatrical magic.

(And, if you missed it, here’s the best part of the Jubilee featuring Joey on top of the roof of the National Theatre).

“I take it we’re engaged? Like it darling?”

So. You may have heard that a certain couple is getting married tomorrow. As I’m never going to be the one to refuse the opportunity to jump onto a bandwagon, here are four of my favourite marriages /partnerships / expressions of love from children’s literature. Love, as one great sage once said, love changes everything.

1. My first couple is  Jo March and Prof. Bhaer from Little Women. Their proposal says it all really. It’s all awkwardly blunt  and really rather resolutely stripped of romance. Yep, it’s a little cheesey now, but if you consider it in the context of the day, for a man to prostrate himself emotionally before a woman, it’s kind of groundbreaking.

“‘Jo, I haf nothing but much love to gif you; I came to see if you could care for it, and I waited to be sure that I was something more than a friend. Am I? Can you make a little place in your heart for old Fritz?’ he added, all in one breath.


2. Roy and Silo from And Tango Makes Three are my second couple of choice. This is one of the books that regularly appears on the most controversial lists. Slightly ironic really as, to be honest, it’s primarily just about Penguins. And Tango Makes Three actually is one of the most relevant picture books we’ve had recently. Families don’t come in a 2.4 scenario anymore. They come in all shapes and sizes and it’s right that literature reflects this. Plus, it’s ridiculously heartwarming. and anything that makes me cry over penguins automatically equals win in my (excuse the pun) book.

“We’ll call her Tango,… because it takes two to make a Tango”


3. This is one not between humans, but between a lot of people and a horse. I’ve spoken about my love for War Horse  before but it fits here as well. It’s ironic that a book about war and death and tragedy should feature such intense love throughout. From Albert taking solace with Joey, knowing that the horse is the only one who understands him in a changing world, through to Joey and Topthorn’s heartbreakingly beautiful relationship, this book makes me bend and break each and every time.

But any fear I had was overwhelmed by a powerful sense of sadess and love that compelled me to stay with Topthorn as long as I could. I knew that once I left him I would be alone in the world again, that I would no longer have his strength and support beside me. So I stayed with him and waited. 

4. My final choice moments are pretty much every proposal from the Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer. From Len’s wince-worthy capitulation to the dorkish Reg (“I take it we’re engaged? Like it darling?” NO LEN JUST SAY NO, IT’S LIKE WITH PEER PRESSURE AND THE DRUGS AND YOU’LL REGRET IT NO END) and through to Grizel finally being awarded with her doctor after being a nightmare to all and sundry for the past kazillion years (although I do have sympathy for her having to put up with Joey’s splendidly inane white bread theory). And then there’s the classic below…

Madge would have tried to console her; but Jack Maynard gave her a shock. Holding Joey very tightly to him, he said in tones there was no mistaking, “Never mind, my darling. It’s all over, and Robin is safe. . .”

And before the stunned Madge could gasp out any ejaculation, Joey sobbed, “Oh, Jack – what a – solid lump – of comfort you – are!”

Isn’t it just about a horse though?

It’s not. It really isn’t. War Horse is so much more than that.

I love Micheal Morpurgo’s writing. He’s got an elegance about him. Each word is precise, simple and gorgeously exact. There’s no artifice, no dressing up of images, no elaborate wordplay. It’s just there. The story is presented with a raw honest simplicity that is breathtaking to behold.

And he does it every time. It’s the most annoying thing. I dream of being able to put a sentence together like that. His prose packs an emotional punch that I struggle to find elsewhere. I can’t think of a book of his that hasn’t left me breathless and wanting more. Waiting for Anya crumpled me into a ball of emotion.  The Mozart Question left me jaw-dropped and envious of his skill with the written word.

But above them all, and always, there was and is War Horse.

War Horse is the story of Joey and Albert Narracott. Joey, an awkward chestnut colt, enters the life of Albert, an awkward Devonshire teen, and neither of them are quite the same again. World War One changes their lives. It changes everybodies.

It’s a slim story, almost a novella, but by God it packs a punch. I’ve read this in public, gasping for breath and feeling the tears run down my face. It does that to you. It makes you go places you never thought possible.

And now I’ve finally been able to see the play. Adopted by Nick Stafford and currently running at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane London, this production made me remember everything that I love about theatre. It’s had superlatives thrown at it already but I can’t do anything except add to them.

Outstanding. Breath-taking. Spine-tingling.

There’s a moment where Joey grows up from a foal into a solid handsome horse and this simple act, this simple moment of theatre made me break down and cry at the sheer magic of it. I won’t spoil it. I can’t. But it was perfect. I leant forward, grasped the tissue my mum thrust at me and sobbed.

Puppets. I was crying at puppets. Puppets with three people inside them, a horse with ten legs,  and somehow, god knows, they make these animals breathe and the ears flick and the nostrils spark and the eyes look at you and then, then when you least expect it is Horse.

This is theatre that leaves you stumbling and unable to believe what you’ve just witnessed. It makes you see tanks looming out of the shadows and pray that the horse (this inanimate animate) makes it through. It makes you root for him so bad it hurts.

It makes you live it. And it makes strangers turn around to strangers and wonder out loud at what they’ve just seen.

Fine, fine, magical work. I can’t wait for the movie.