The Shakespeare Codex – Stephen Briggs

Based loosely on The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, Lords and Ladies and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Shakespeare Codex is a new Discworld stage adaptation written to commemorate Terry Pratchett’s life and works.

Pratchett and Shakespeare fans may also spot snippets from Maskerade, Wyrd Sisters, Richard II, Henry V, Hamlet and others as two worlds collide.

From the rear cover of the book

First published in 2021, but initially performed on 6th April 2016, this is Stephen Brigg’s first adaptation since Terry Pratchett’s death on 12th March 2015 and unusually takes as it’s base not one of Pratchett’s novels but the short novella written as part of the second Science of Discworld series which is used as the links between the science sections written by professors Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. In the Science of Discworld series of four books the wizards of Unseen University accidentally create what they call Roundworld, but which is clearly our home planet of Earth, and then get involved in various adventures trying to keep it safe. In the case of book II this is to prevent Discworld elves taking over and involves Shakespeare as the man to write them eternally into fantasy and figures of fun and therefore no longer a danger, which he does in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Briggs quotes extensively from Shakespeare’s plays with instructions to the actors taking the roles that these should be “played straight. Not hammy”.

As said in the quote from the rear cover Briggs has extended the source material beyond the Science of Discworld II and produced a play that works well even for non Discworld fans and which sold out through its first performances at the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon, Oxfordshire where Briggs is part of an amateur dramatic company. He has been adapting Pratchett’s material since 1991 and these have been performed all over the world to apparently equally happy audiences. Despite this being the twentieth ‘Discworld’ play by him this is the first I have actually owned and read and it was very enjoyable with the mix of Shakespeare and Pratchett handled really well and plenty of the Bard’s own words to set it firmly in Elizabethan England.

The wizards are able to travel through time and ‘fix’ things that have gone wrong and which would prevent Shakespeare being born but they remain largely puzzled by this place where magic doesn’t work but despite which everybody there seems to believe it does work. They are also the only people able to see the elves as they spread their malevolent influence over the population although the Countess of Shrewsbury says to Queen Elizabeth at the end of the play that she could have sworn there was another Queen on the stage at some point so she clearly had seen, or at least sensed, the Queen of the Elves. Of course, all’s well that ends well, so to say and all does end well for the wizards and indeed for William Shakespeare whose new play making fun of the elves as silly fairies that try to interfere with mortal men but are ultimately defeated is a big hit with his audience.

As a final thought the Discworld librarian of the Unseen University is an orangutan (it’s complicated) and throughout the original book and this play is apparently successfully disguised as a Spaniard. I’m intrigued as to what nationality he is assigned in Spanish translations of the two books.

Porterhouse Blue – Tom Sharpe

Porterhouse Blue was Tom Sharpe’s third novel and the first set in England after two mocking the apartheid regime in South Africa where he had lived from 1951 before being deported for sedition in 1961. Before going any further with the review however it is important to take note of the language used in a couple of early chapters and one later one, which can euphemistically be referred to as ‘of its time’ especially of the early 1970’s by a white person who had spent a decade in South Africa. It also probably goes some way to explaining why the book does not appear to have been in print for the best part of two decades in the UK. These three paragraphs aside the book is a fun read, with the conflicts, and other relations, between the characters driving forward the story. The opening paragraph sets the scene as the hidebound, male only, Porterhouse College with it’s tradition of big dinners, sporting prowess and low academic achievement has no idea what is about to hit it with the appointment of a new Master of College.

The new Master, Sir Godber Evans, has plans to shake up the old ways in this bastion of maleness; for a start he wants to be co-educational, start accepting students on the basis of academic qualifications rather than muscle for the rugby team and rowing crews, and horror of horrors turn the dining hall into a self service cafeteria run by outside caterers. More disastrous plans come to light, disastrous at least in the eyes of the senior faculty who quite like the big dinners, fine wines and a laissez-faire attitude to educational success that has characterised Porterhouse College for centuries. He must be stopped but how?

Another bastion of the traditions of the college is Skullion, the Head Porter, a role he has held for 45 years. It’s a job he is ideally suited for calling as it does for a total deference to ‘his betters’, i.e. the faculty, at least to their faces, a mindless application of the college rules especially where students are concerned and limited ambition. All these traits he gained in the lower ranks of the army along with fastidious attention to the shine on his shoes which he polishes daily as part of his fixed routine and which serves as a calming influence whenever he is upset. Being upset is going to be his standard position from the arrival of the new Master onwards and often with good reason. It is Skullion we follow more than any other character as the plot unfurls as he seeks to thwart the new masters plans with the help of former pupils known to himself as Skullions Scholars who he has helped pass their degrees by hiring capable students from other colleges to write essays or at the last resort sit the final exams for them.

There is another plot line, which barely touches on the main plot, and that is of Zipser, Porterhouse’s only research student, and the lustful feelings he has for Mrs Biggs his bedder, or servant who cleans and tidies his rooms in college. Mrs Biggs is a lady of mature years and large figure who not only realises Zipser’s desire but determines to reciprocate, Mr Biggs having passed away many years earlier. Zipser and Mrs Biggs storyline however reaches its climax just over halfway through the novel and only the aftermath is dealt with following that.

It’s worth pointing out the origins of the title. A Blue at Cambridge or Oxford is a person who has represented the university in a sporting event between the two universities and as Porterhouse is depicted as a sporting college then students from there would clearly be represented amongst the Cambridge Blues. But a Porterhouse Blue has another meaning as well and is down to the huge meals consumed there regularly and refers to the likely stroke that people with high blood pressure, cholesterol levels, obesity and probable diabetes brought on by such an unhealthy diet are likely to suffer from.

The book was adapted by Malcolm Bradbury as a four part TV series in 1986 starring David Jason as Skullion and Ian Richardson as Sir Godber Evans and that is how I first came across it. My copy is the 1976 first paperback edition with a cover illustration by Paul Sample which I bought second hand probably soon after the TV series was broadcast. The cover depicts one of the funniest scenes in the book as Skullion attempts to rid the college grounds of over 200 gas filled and highly slippery condoms in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. There is no way I’m explaining how they came to be there or the circumstances of their removal you’ll just have to read the book.

Clochemerle – Gabriel Chevallier

Just possibly the most fun book I have read this year, it is delightfully written with the author taking the role of narrator and introducing us to the small Beaujolais town of Clochmerle and it’s comical inhabitants in the way of a consummate storyteller. Every character and place is beautifully described, and at length, so that you can fully realise in your minds eye each and every one of them. It is the third in my August book theme of ‘translated from French’ and it has been an absolute joy to read even though it clocks in at 320 pages.

It all starts with the decision of the local mayor to bring progress to his sleepy town by building a public urinal and due to the odd geography of the place the best location is half way up the main street which places it firmly outside the church. Although not as indicated on the cover of this Penguin edition as it is placed not in the centre of a square but up against a wall adjacent to the Beaujolais Stores on an alley leading up to the church itself. To get a feel for the wonderful descriptions in the book let’s look at page one and the two men walking down the road from the square to where the urinal is to be situated.

One of these men, past fifty years of age, tall, far-haired, of sanguine complexion, could have been taken as a typical descendent of the Burgundians who formally inhabited the department of the Rhone. His face, the skin of which was dented by exposure to sun and wind, owed its expression almost entirely to his small, light grey eyes, which were surrounded by tiny wrinkles, and which he was perpetually blinking; this gave him an air of roguishness, harsh at times and at others friendly. His mouth which might have given indications of character that could not be read in his eyes, was entirely hidden by his drooping moustache, beneath which was thrust the stem of a short black pipe, smelling of a mixture of tobacco and of dried grape-skins, which he chewed at rather than smoked. Thin and gaunt, with long, straight legs, and a slight paunch which was more the outcome of lack of exercise than a genuine stoutness, the man gave the impression of a powerful physique. Although carelessly dressed from his comfortable, well-polished shoes, the good quality of the cloth of his coat, and the collar which he wore with natural ease on a week-day, you guessed that he was respected and well-to-do. His voice, and his sparing use of gesture were those of a man accustomed to rule.

And there we have a perfect pen-portrait of Barthélemy Piéchut, mayor of the town, a man of ambition to go far in the party and for which mayorality of a small provincial town was to be just a stepping stone. His fellow walker is Ernest Tafardel the schoolmaster and a far more devout republican than his friend although not destined to rise any higher than his current role. Against these two redoubtable men of the Third Republic there is the powerful Catholic Church although represented in Clochemerle by the Curé Ponosse a man who joined the priesthood for a quiet life and is definitely not the man for the crisis to come. However there is also the old maid, Mademoiselle Putet, full of religious fervour with nothing else to drive her forward now it had become quite clear she was destined to remain a Mademoiselle and untouched by the male sex rather than a married Madame. She it is that stirs up the trouble between the church and the state, initially over the urinal which as she lives by the church at the end of the alley where it is placed she sees as a personal affront to her dignity, but later as she interferes in the various goings on of the population.

The stage is set for a farcical ‘war’ between to two sides which is reflected in another conflict also in the location of the urinal between the two most attractive women in the town who run the Beaujolais Stores in the case of Judith and the bar of Torbayon in the case of Adéle which are directly opposite one another. Judith is well known for being free with her charms so to speak and Adéle flaunts hers rather than directly engaging in extra-marital affairs unlike Judith but this all changes when Judith’s particular favourite, who is staying at the Torbayon Inn, is taken ill and nursed by Adéle who takes advantage of his bed ridden state to discover exactly what she is missing in her own marriage. All this takes place in the long, hot summer of 1923 when tempers are getting frayed due to the heat and the annual fete is the cause of excessive drinking on all sides. The cast of minor characters is beautifully drawn and all have part to play in the ultimate fiasco and its resultant tragedy from the washerwomen of the lower town to the baroness in her chateau above the town, through the government officials more interested in cars and their private dealings and the military who can’t be bothered to intervene.

The book ends with an overview ten years after the calamities of 1923 by bringing us up to date with the happenings to most of the protagonists since then and all is well with most of them and the town now boasts three urinals, a great step forward indeed. There are apparently two sequels 1951’s Clochemerle Babylone and from 1963 Clochemerle-les-Bains both of which at least were available in Penguin so I can definitely see me hunting these out for future reading even if they are out of print which they appear to be.

The Unpublished Spike Milligan Box 18 – Norma Farnes (Ed)

Norma was Spike’s agent, manager and friend for over thirty five years and as she explains in the introduction Spike had a comprehensive filing system based on numbered box files for work based items and lettered box files for personal things. Box 18 – IDEAS was a sort of dumping ground for things not finished or just ideas that would possibly be expanded later, every now and then he would go through it and pick out bits that he felt he could work on, sometimes they would go back in Box 18 untouched or partly modified others would make it through to completion, and some would just get discarded as unworkable. The problem with this book is that by definition anything in Box 18 was something that Spike didn’t regard as finished and frankly a large chunk of it shows why although there are definitely some gems hidden in here amongst the bits that really don’t work.

For those people reading this who aren’t familiar with the comic genius and deeply troubled man that was Spike Milligan he was born in 1918 and fought in Africa and then through Italy during WWII and was badly shell shocked during the conflict which would lead to frequent bouts of depression and more serious mental illness throughout the rest of his life. Despite this he was the leading light of 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s comedy in the UK as a founder and main script writer for the Goon Show and then his TV series Q which started in 1969. In fact in interviews included on the DVD’s of Q the Monty Python team recall seeing the first episodes and thinking that this was exactly what they had been planning, yet again Spike had got there first, The Pythons subsequently amended their format so that they didn’t appear to be copying Spike. He also wrote over eighty books including seven hilarious volumes of war diaries. Because of this pretty well everything that Spike thought should appear had done by the time of his death in 2002. I first came across his work whilst at primary school which a book of children’s poetry called a Dustbin of Milligan, I still have this rather battered due to being read almost to destruction paperback and have loved his writing ever since, still being able to quote the poems fifty years later.

The photo above is of the Goons, Peter Sellars, Harry Secombe and Spike during what Norma believes is a rehearsal although clearly from the ages of the actors it was towards the end of their appearances together and one of the gems in this book is a script for a Goon show in Spike’s handwriting. You can see his mind at work with the crossings out and alterations, The Goons would be regarded as surreal even now, back in the 1950’s there was nothing like them anywhere but the pressure of not only appearing but also writing most of the material led to Spike having the fist of his manic depressive attacks which saw him frequently in mental hospitals from then onwards.

The final quarter of the book reproduces some of Spike’s letters and again you wonder why some were chosen although the spat with Harrods over a unpaid bill is somewhat amusing. This section, along with the first part which has pages of his diaries is also clearly not something that came from Box 18 in fact probably only about half of what is in the book could logically have come from the IDEAS box, the rest is abstracted from other files although a couple of diary pages are rather poignant as Spike is obviously going through a difficult time again

All in all this book is interesting for a Spike Milligan fan but there is so much more of his to explore for a newcomer to his work, definitely read the war diaries, or his numerous books of poetry but this is not the place to start. I must have over twenty of his books purchased over the years along with the DVD re-issue of the five series of Q and would recommend all of them ahead of this amalgamation of bits which has been sitting on my shelves for several years before I finally opened it this week, I think I need to pick up the diaries again to remind myself of what Spike’s writing properly finished to his own satisfaction could really be like.

Longhand – Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton is best known as a comedy script writer and actor for TV and radio and his shows have been a constant favourite of mine since he started in the 1970’s especially the BBC Radio 4 long running series Old Harry’s Game which he writes and stars in as Satan. Not a particularly obvious subject for humour but as always with Hamilton he finds a new way of looking at the character and that is what imbues him with comedy. In this book, his second novel, he takes another mythological character and brings him to life in a surprising way telling his story and allowing him to debunk a lot of the myth around him.

We first meet our hero, for hero he is even if he doesn’t like it and for reasons that swiftly become clear he shuns publicity as much as he can, frantically writing a very long letter to the woman he loves because he has to leave her and for the first time in thousands of years feels that he has to tell her why. As you can see below the joy of the book is that we get the letter, the whole book, all 349 pages of it, is handwritten, with crossings out and edits just as Malcolm would have written it.

The reader finds out almost immediately that Malcolm is actually Heracles and has lived for thousands of years always having to move on as firstly he never ages so starts to look odd to people who know him for a long time but secondly, and as it turns out more importantly, Zeus is determined he will never be happy and has tormented him throughout the millennia. The letter he writes to his darling Bess over a period of three days is funny yet also tragic; it is without doubt a love letter but also a confession and Hamilton handles the emotional roller coaster perfectly. I found myself reading late into the night as I simply didn’t want to stop finding out more about Malcolm and Bess and the ways that he tries to disguise his enormous strength and immortality from all those around them.

I have read many versions of the Greek myths so knew Heracles’s story but it isn’t necessary to know any of that before reading this book, Hamilton takes us right through the tales mainly so Malcolm can explain why they are so wrong and what really happened. It’s a brilliant idea and, to me at least, a completely original approach to mythological story telling, Malcolm is so ordinary because he has to be but his back story is one of wanton destruction and tragedy, he so despises that aspect of his early life and just wants to be ‘normal’. With Bess he has found that normality he craves but as the letter explains he is being forced to abandon the happiness he now has and at a truly awful point in time.

By the end of the book you are totally invested in the tragic love story of Malcolm and Bess, a tale that fit right in with the classical Greek mythology that Hamilton has mined for his characters’ source. We never hear from Bess in the whole book, other characters are reported verbatim but Bess is always heard through the medium of Malcolm’s letter as he explains what had just happened in the hope that she will forgive him. Fortunately we know right from the beginning that she does and that she still loves him as there is one other letter included right at the front and that is typewritten ostensibly from a firm of solicitors to the publisher. I read this first as that is where it is placed but rereading it after finishing Malcolm’s letter you understand it better.

The book is published by Unbound, a crowd funded publishing house, and I subscribed to it before Andy Hamilton even started to write, based partly on the pitch that he made on the site but also as a fan of his work over many decades I knew that he would produce something well worth reading and he has certainly delivered. As a subscriber I received a signed copy on publication and my name is in the list of around five hundred people who supported the work through to publication.