Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

After several ships are sunk by a massive whale, Uncle Sam organises an expedition to hunt down the monster and kill it. Last to join the crew is French naturalist Pierre Aronnax, his passive manservant Conseil and famed Canadian harpoonist Ned Land. These three are not long for the hunt, however, because when their ship tracks down the beast a chapter later they end up falling overboard and discovering that massive whale is actually made of metal.

Taken inside the artificial leviathan, which then disappears beneath the waves, they begin their epic journey (20,000 leagues being a distance, not a depth – though of course you knew that) as prisoners of the enigmatic Captain Nemo. There are sea battles, encounters with giant sea spiders, attacks from giant octopi and a visit to a sunken city, like Pompeii underwater (which turns out to be Atlantis), before our heroes get the chance to escape, by which point Monsieur Aronnax is not altogether sure he really wants to.

I actually only read this one because I’m working on a new edition at the day job, but it is still a lively, breezy, entertaining read that has dated rather well over the past 150-odd years. A scene where Captain Nemo buries a crewmember in the middle of a coral reef really stood out, and moments where Jules Verne pre-empted the future quite accurately show why he’s now regarded as one of the founding fathers of science fiction.

Unfortunately for all the jolly japes of the plot in which they find themselves embroiled, the characters get a little lost along the way. Ned Land never develops a second dimension beyond wanting to kill anything he encounters. Conseil gets called ‘boy’ a lot, despite being in his thirties, and his eternal placidness would be a sure sign of psychopathy and imminent mass murder in anybody else’s version.

Captain Nemo himself also remains a little too much of an enigma. Living in self-exile, funding himself with salvaged gold from sunken Spanish galleons, he could have been something of a charismatic antihero. But beyond some reference to a dead family, we don’t really find out anything more about him.

The Private Blog of Joe Cowley

Diaries being for girls (and wimpy kids), when fourteen-year-old Joe Cowley needs to get things off his chest he turns to his blog. Which is basically a diary anyway. And one posted on the world wide web.

Generally speaking, things are not going too well for Joe. Not only is he being terrorised at school by the frankly unevolved Gav James, but he’s never kissed a girl – the closest he’s come is a post-ride attempt at a fairground, which ultimately involved a little too much vomiting on his part to secure him a great reputation.

What’s more, both his divorced parents are now seeing new people and Joe doesn’t like either of them. His dad’s Russian girlfriend Svetlana is rather blunt with the English language, and his mum’s new bloke Jim wants his son to come and live with them. Joe returns home from a stellar victory against Gav James involving water balloons and wee to learn that his mum has agreed. Then Jim’s son shows up, and only he and Joe really know why he smells of urine…

With The Private Blog of Joe Cowley, Ben Davis finds a niche in a genre that already has several big names but quickly makes himself right at home. It lacks the knowingness and irony that make the earlier Adrian Mole books aimed more at people twice Adrian’s age, and it’s far too honest about what it’s really like to be a teenage boy to be as wholesome as its American counterparts.

The book is crammed full of dirty jokes (Ben Davis has a very idiosyncratic sense of humour, especially apparent regarding his lipstick/Chihuahua gag, of which I will say no more…) and is thus entirely unsuitable for (most) adults. The filthiness aside, however, there’s a genuinely nice story about respect and trust underneath it all.

Though you have to wonder whether those privacy settings will survive too far into the hopefully inevitable sequel, given how this one ends.

Brideshead Revisited

Come 1943, Captain Charles Ryder and his platoon have spent four years being shuffled from billet to billet, waiting to see action. Their latest move doesn’t take them any closer to battle either. Their new billet is the sprawling Brideshead estate, which Ryder has visited before, some 20 years earlier.

In 1923 the young Charles goes up to Oxford, where everyone he meets is rich, charming, sharp, intellectual, and utterly, utterly dull. Then he meets Sebastian Flyte and his near-constant companion, the teddy bear Aloysius. Richer and more aristocratic than anyone else Charles has ever met, Sebastian comes from a class that can afford never to grow up. In the early 1920s Brideshead is just one big nursery for the overgrown children who live there.

As someone whose childhood was blighted by the loss of his mother during the First World War, and who spent a lonely adolescence with a father wrapped up in his own private grief, Charles is attracted to Sebastian’s apparent infantilism. Afternoons are spent at leisure, hiding from the rest of the family and sunbathing naked on the roof. Charles gets to have the youth he missed out upon.

But when he meets the rest of the Marchmain family he gradually learns that bluster is superficial, beneath it there is a hidden sadness, that things are always more complex than they seem, and that nothing lasts forever. At its most basic level it is a story about growing up, and how growing up often means growing apart, but it’s not just Charles and Sebastian’s relationship that suffers from this natural entropy.

Even on Charles’s first visit he finds the house at Brideshead in a state of casual disrepair. Rooms are abandoned, unused or simply filled as storage, and the private Catholic chapel that has been the spiritual heart of the house for generations is threatened with deconsecration by the bishop. Evelyn Waugh is capturing the twilight days not just of the house or the Marchmain family, but of an entire incongruously antiquated aristocratic class, expecting to live like they have always done whilst the rest of the country progresses without them.

That’s the nature of aristocratic freedom, Waugh seems to say. As Charles realises, too late for himself, to be at the top is to be alone, and isolation lets loneliness ferment into something destructive, which must be inherited along with the house and the title. As it is, Sebastian may escape the novel but Charles does not.

The Marchmains don’t see themselves as being at the top, of course. Above them is the bishop, and then the cardinals, the Pope, Christ, God. They sit quite a way down that hierarchy. With plenty of broken marriages and infidelity to go round, the Marchmains are hardly the most devout sons and daughters of the Church, but they allow their catechesis to create an impeding structure of rules and restrictions that convinces them they are not as free and as blessed as they really are.

As such, for all its breezy lightness in the early chapters following Charles and Sebastian’s exploits, and despite later moments of pure comic gold (including an almost blasphemously funny attempted conversion to Catholicism that makes mention of sacred monkeys that live in the Vatican…), Brideshead Revisited ends up being something of a tragedy, about unrequited love, missed opportunities, and unfulfilled potential.

Though it’s also worth mentioning there’s a bit where Charles and Sebastian make a concerted effort to avoid the boys of the Bullingdon Club, so some things clearly haven’t changed.