Dr Dolittle

Sometimes when I’m stuck for a story idea, I revisit a series of books I enjoyed as a child. (Also, it seems, when I’m stuck for a blog entry.) The books are the stories of Dr Dolittle.

Dr Dolittle and horseIn several places in the books when the doctor and his “family” are killing time, someone is sure to ask the doctor for a story and he usually says that he can’t think of one, but then turns out his pockets. His pockets are full of all sorts of things that he’s picked up here and there over time and there’s always something he can tell a story about.

It’s a good technique, and you don’t have to fill your pockets with odds and ends. Just look around and let your eye light on something. If you’re at home you might look at the pictures on your walls, the things on your shelves, the furniture or animals in your room, or what you can see out of the window. If you’re out, look at the people passing by or the decorations on the buildings, adverts, snatches of conversation, smells, insects, rubbish. Ask yourself, Does thing this have a story to tell me? Why does it look this way? Who used it? Who threw it away and why? Or did they drop it – is it lost? Who is this person? Where is she going and how do I know?

I’ve even used this technique when I’ve been teaching English conversation as a hook to start people talking, telling stories about themselves or their surroundings.

Dr Dolittle, Jip the dog and Dab-Dab the duck aboard shipIf you search for Dr Dolittle on the Internet, as I’ve just done, the majority of the hits you get take you to the Eddie Murphy films from the turn of the recent century or to the 1967 film with Rex Harrison as the doctor. But Dr Dolittle is much older than that. The author, Hugh Lofting, wrote the germ of his Dr Dolittle stories in letters to his children from trenches and battlefields of the First World War. Of all the writing and pictures to come out of the First World War, surely the illustrated Dr Dolittle stories were the most unlikely.

Hugh Lofting was British but married and resident in the USA when the war broke out. In 1916 he was called up, travelled back to Britain and saw service on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. His experiences in the trenches were, he said, by turns too horrible or too boring to put into letters home to his young family – his daughter was four years old in 1917, his son two. Besides, his children wanted stories and pictures.

Lofting looked around and his eye lit on the animals that were conscripted to fight in the war alongside the humans. Years later he wrote:

If we made the animals take the same chances we did ourselves, why did we not give them similar attention when wounded? But obviously to develop a horse-surgery as good as that of our Casualty Clearing Stations would necessitate a knowledge of horse language.

And so the idea came to him of a country doctor, disillusioned with human society, who prefers the company of animals and who learns to speak with them in order to be able to take care of them.

The letters written 1917 to 1918 became the basis for Lofting’s first novel The Story of Dr Dolittle. Or, to give it its full title, The Story of Doctor Dolittle: Being the History of His Peculiar Life at Home and Astonishing Adventures in Foreign Parts Never Before Printed.

Dr Dolittle - The End

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The illustrations are by Hugh Lofting and taken from the edition of The Story of Dr Dolittle “Digitized for the Microsoft Corporation by Internet Archive in 2007 from New York Public Library”. Hugh Lofting died in 1947, so his works are under copyright in Europe for another two years – but Microsoft claim the book is out of copyright in the USA as it was published in 1923. If anyone from the Estate of Hugh Lofting objects to my using these illustrations, please get in touch and I will remove them. But I hope you won’t.

The state of the art

Soap bubbles outside the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square

For 30 years my sister lived in London and for me a visit to Britain was synonymous with a visit to London. Two years ago she and her husband moved to a little village in Northamptonshire to be closer to our mother and suddenly it was no longer so easy to visit London. Suddenly I found myself in the same predicament as most tourists – looking for hotel rooms, comparing prices, trading comfort for convenience. You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

In September I had a three-week break from work and spent part of the first two weeks on my annual trip to Britain. I visited Northampton and Northamptonshire, various points in London, and Oxford. Here are some of the literary-related highlights.

In Northampton I continued the series of interviews with my mother that I started two years ago. An independent and very clear minded 92-year-old, my mum is telling me and my digital recorder the story of her life in hourly instalments. On previous visits we’ve covered the first 20 years of her life; on this occasion we took the story from 1941 – when she joined the WAAF during the war – up to 1957 and her meeting with my father when they were both 35.

(“What did you see in him,” I ask. “Oh,” she says, “he was a Greek god!” So – I didn’t get those genes then.)

I don’t know what I’m going to do with this ultimately, but the current plan is to transcribe mum’s memories and return them to her for corrections and additions. Although she’s eager to talk and remember, she says occasionally (I have the recording) “I don’t know why we’re doing this. Who would be interested?” But I’m interested and my sister is interested and I think other people would be too, though whether the recordings simply take a place in an archive for future historians, or whether they’ll feed into a biography or a novel I can’t yet say.

My sister is still trying to find her feet in village society. She is torn between no less than two book circles, though she doesn’t seem terribly enthusiastic about either of them. In the one, she joined first the books they’ve had to read are not to her taste. She showed me: Hunger Games. I know the Swedish translators, I boasted, but she wasn’t impressed. Young adult science-fiction. Not her thing. On the other hand, the alternative circle seems mostly enthusiastic about life-style books: gardens, home-decorating, cooking. These are all subjects she enjoys, but she doesn’t really want to read books about them. Jane Austin, she sighs, George Elliot. Virginia Wolfe!

King James presents books to the University of Oxford.
King James presents books to the University of Oxford.

Despite all the hype I really don’t see any sign that printed books are going out of fashion. I visited the Waterstone’s shop at Trafalgar Square. There’s a small – relatively small – shop at street level, but you go down some steps to a basement that stretches away to far distant corners. At Oxford I visited Blackwell’s flagship store where again you go down some stairs from the interior of a narrow shop to find yourself in a sculptured space, terraced on different levels, buried beneath one of the College quads. Books not only lined up on shelves but piled in the aisles. The start of term and time to buy course literature – and all of it in print on paper.

Back in London, the massive, new Foyles bookshop at 107 Charing Cross Road also testifies to a confidence in the continuing value of the printed word.

To be sure, on the underground I saw more people reading in their Kindles and surf pads than I saw reading books, but I saw a lot of people reading books. George RR Martin continues popular.

Printed or not, stories and storytelling seem to still be an important part of everyday life. How else to explain the newly opened Story Museum in Oxford? There was an article about the museum on the BBC’s website earlier in the year and I decided I would go and see it if I got the opportunity. It’s not that easy to find, and having got lost once I had to ask at the tourist information centre.

“Oh,” said the woman I spoke with, “you’ll love that! Look out for my old teacher Philip Pullman dressed up as Long John Silver!” That’s something that can only happen in Oxford.

The museum had launched with an exhibition of photos of children’s authors dressed as their favourite fictional characters. Hence Philip Pullman as Long John Silver and Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman as the Wicked Witch of the West, whose pictures I saw. However I missed Neil Gaiman as Badger from The Wind in the Willows. Actually I seem to have missed most of the museum. What happened was that I wondered through a doorway into a courtyard and then into an exhibition hall where a class of very enthusiastic five-year-olds and their teachers seemed to be on a guided tour. Not wanting to disturb them I took a quick look around and sneaked out again. It was quite attractive, but it didn’t seem to be very big.

Telling people after that I’d visited The Story Museum, I realised from their reactions that I hadn’t seen anything.

“Did you see in the Lord of the Rings section how if you look to one side you suddenly see a the wardrobe from Narnia?”

“What did you think of Badger’s home? All the things that you can look at and inside and touch?”

I’m clearly going to have to go back.

And finally I must again mention the interview I had with Michelle Thomas at Crystal Palace railway station on the last day of my visit. Next week – I’m putting my head on the line here but – next week this blog entry will be devoted to that.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The stories we tell

An Englishman went into a bar in Edinburgh and said “Can you tell me the quickest way to Glasgow?”
The barman said “Are you walking or are you driving?”
“Driving.” said the Englishman.
“Aye,” said the barman. “That’s the quickest way.”

When I was about 10 or 11 I discovered a way to hide from my mother things that I’d done at school that I knew she wouldn’t like. The technique was to give her a well-edited account of my day. If I concentrated on one or two innocuous events, and my account of them was sufficiently full, then the fact they occupied only about an hour of my school day would go unnoticed and I wouldn’t get grilled about the rest of the time.

Humans are storytellers. You can define us as a species in other ways I know, but I like this one and no one has yet identified storytelling among any other species, so why not? We share with stories: share our experiences, our dreams, our ideas and histories, our perceptions and values. Stories are the things that bind us together socially, both at the level of friends and families, and as groups, societies, religious or political believers. Nations.

This week I’ve been exposed to a number of different stories about nationhood. I am travelling in Britain and I flew here from Sweden a week ago. Last Sunday a Swedish general election took place in which several different stories of Swedish nationhood were being told and voted upon. And on Thursday – tomorrow at the time of writing – Scotland will hold a referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.

All stories are always simplifications. Even the most intricately planned and delicately balanced novel – James Joyce’s Ulysses for example – is a simplification. Real life is untidy, incoherent, complex and glorious. When we tell stories we deliberately set out to take from real life, to hone, shave and organise so that the story contains enough reality to be believable, but no more. The day-to-day mess of reality gets in the way of storytelling. Stories always try to focus on one or a few essential details and aim to convey as simply as possible the message we want to share.

This is true whether you are a kid telling your parent about something that happened at school, or a comic telling a story to an audience, or a politician projecting a vision of a country. Your story always and ever only reflects a part of reality.

The trick, of course, is how much reality you include. My schools stories included just enough to make my day sound boring so as not to invite closer inspection. In a novel it’s often necessary to include much more reality to convince your reader. Ulysses infamously includes so much reality some original reviewers thought it was unplanned. (It is in fact ferociously well-planned and based on the structure of Homer’s Odysseus.)

The joke that starts this entry is about as empty of reality as you can go. You are not supposed to ask: Why was the Englishman asking direction? Why did he go into a bar to do so? You are not supposed to ask why the barman replied the way he did. You are supposed to know.

The format: “X goes into a bar” is a standard way to start a joke. The naming of a nationality sets you up for a prejudice. The barman is Scots (he is resident in Edinburgh and says “Aye” instead of “Yes”) and he has the last word, so he’s the hero. The Englishman is the butt of the joke for asking a stupid question.

The nation-stories I’ve been hearing recently are almost as divorced from reality as the joke. Not quite – there has to be a flake more of truth in them – but they depend just as much on prejudice, and encourage the listener just as much not to question but to accept. They aim at once to promote and confirm an established prejudice. Scotland is unjustly deprived of her freedom by the leeches of Westminster and the evil English. The Swedish nation (one people, one culture) is being undermined by an evil and unholy conspiracy of communists, capitalists feminists and foreigners. The United Kingdom is mystically united by ties of blood, Scots and English, spilled in defence of the nation on the battlefields of two world wars. And so on.

I can’t help feeling that if we all read more real fiction – and discussed how it works – we might be in a better position to question the paltry efforts of politicians and propagandists.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.