Turn The Tides Gently Part 2 – An Opening

Been working on an opening for Turn The Tides Gently part 2. So, here’s something I wrote months ago. What do you think?

MermaidI will call you “Marine” he says as he looks at the child. About nine years old. An urchin, grubby faced, caked with the mud she is sinking in.

Here, have another.

A sixpence arcs through the air, turning over and over head, tail, head, tail, head… it lands with the tail up supported on the unstable black mud for a few seconds before an arm of black water reaches over the top of it.

Her blackened hands scoop it up with a handful of stinking black silt before the boys can get to it. One of them, Ned, a red haired boy with a hare lip groans – “It ain’t fair. And it ain’t lady-like. Go on, taking our loot!”

She rubs the mud from the coin on her far-from-clean dress and drops it in her pocket as the steady psssh psssh of the engine in the station starts up. A whistle echoing around the port mouth.

Ned comes towards her, aggressive, “I’ll have it. Come on,” he holds his hands out. She eyes him narrowly and freezes, watching him closely. Then as he moves in to take hold of her, she darts sideways under his reach, turns and kicks him square in the back so he sprawls on the flat mud.

The onlookers, tourists delighted by this scene of urchin rivalry, laugh; a delicate woman in silver bodice and flowing skirt looking more troubled than amused. Low morals. Ships, shops and low morals. Thus Portsmouth.

Grace, the girl urchin looks up at her benefactor, a tradesman of some sort, in a bowler hat and a neat moustache, bushy and almost comical, like the Walrus and the Carpenter she saw a picture of in a book. A book. Can you imagine. Someone left it behind on a bench by the sea and she’d found it, and there it was – Alice and all her adventures.

“Thank you, mate – Sir,” she shouts up, grinning white teeth from the black slime.

“There’s more where that come from,” he calls back in a deep, playful bass. “Oh plenty more. You come and see me, girl. Yes.”

She thinks, cocking her head on one side for a few seconds, then –

“Yes. Yes, mate. Wait there.” And she grabs a handhold in the side of the dock wall and climbs up to the crowd, which pushes back as she flops on to the deck, a sprawl of black mud and slime.

Later, after she has walked a while with the stranger amongst the naval outfitters and public houses, past the Gunwharf arch, he looks at her and says:

“I know you. I know your face. I’ve seen your eyes.”

“Where then?” she challenges him, putting her hands on her hips like the women do who banter with sailors and soldiers in the backstreets at night.

“A dream,” he says, his eyes suddenly burning. “In a dream.”

She laughs at that. “We got no room for dreamers here,” she says as if she’s said it all her life, an echo of Tope, the landlady at the public house where she lives. “Drunk more like! In at the Duchess, I bet you were, and drunk!”

“No, I’ve seen you. We’ve met. You come to my workshop. North End. I’ll tell you more.”
He holds up another sixpence. “There’s more of this.”

She smiles and laughs.

“At the back of the farm,” he says. “The workshop.”

“All right then. I’ll be there,” she answers with a grin.

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Extract from The Snow Witch – description of the town

snow-witch-cover-22a-copyWith this section of The Snow Witch, I decided to write a potted history of the town with a level of dark style. Hope you like it:

*

Sleep.

The city sleeps, contracted in the cold to a singularity of stone. An island city, surrounded by tides flooding from the south, running up its eastern side, swelling the creek that orphans it from the mainland, swirling through its western harbour where it welcomes boats disgorging shivering holidaymakers and businesspeople and soldiers and home-comers and refugees.

A city just 5 miles long, with tight furrows in which were planted, in the last century and a half, rows of terraced housing hunched in lines, braced against the gushing sea gale. Long before they grew, to the south of the island, a few bleak, isolated cottages stood beside a long, muddy beach. Within a few decades, the health-giving sea attracted a rash of tall villas set back from the shore, separated from the ever-moving water by a desolate common. Upon it, from time to time, troops marshalled under white canvas bell tents between furze bushes near a small fortress garrisoned with redcoats. Later, as the salubrious saline’s effects grew fashionable, bathing machines rolled in, a pier, beach huts, ice-cream stands, and, in the by-now obsolete heart of the lonely fortress, a model village. Later too, the great morass where the island’s river waters pooled, was channelled into a manmade lake – and so the plastic swans were trucked in, to move upon the face of the water.

Beyond this southern leisure resort, the real business of the island unfolded in the west. How often had marshalled troops marched from the common in drilled ranks to the dockyard and embarked on ships? To this day, beyond the seaside resort and the old town that stretches along a spit of land to a tiny, hook-shaped harbour, ferries and freighters and warships wallow in giant docks, waiting to transport people, and goods, and death.

All that can be found on the city’s western edge: at the dockyard, at the container quay, at the ferryport.

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An opening to a story – would you read on?

snow-witch-cover-22a-copy
This is a revised opening to a novel I wrote some time ago. What do you think?

The Snow Witch

The snow has eased off, and she looks up at the morning light. She’s sucking on a cigarette, her face a delta of narrow chin and wide set eyes, her skin white beneath her black hair and the dirty woollen hat she wears over it.

Well, she says to herself, looking at the shopping precinct buried in snow. Here I am. What now?

She won’t run in this weather. No, not when it’s this bad, she thinks, sniffing the air, as if she can smell more storm, an instinct she learned when she was a kid living on a mountain in a foreign country – her homeland. She hitched in to this English town last night and ran for shelter – the shop doorway offering the best she could find.

So, what will she do?

Stay long enough to buy food, get cash and, finally, a ticket. This is her plan, as far as it goes.

So, she begins.

She selects a pitch beside an empty shop, and with a gentle knock and click, unslings her case and opens it. A violin. The familiar weight and curve of the neck presses her palm as the city wakes around her: pale shopkeepers, fluorescent council men, early-morning shoppers, red-flushed kids excited by snowfall.

Daylight hardens. Now, she thinks. She rests her chin and launches magical sound from age-dark wood.

Fresh, bright, sad – a trill of sensual notes dipping and turning in the winter light. The melody: alien, rich in hidden history, conjuring foreign terrain, snowclad peaks, a stream, the fresh scent of mountain pines.

Two fat boys gawp from the far side of the precinct, their hearts lifting. A young man behind thick glasses stops to look, his mouth agape in the chill air. An elderly lady slides on the ice with a deftness that speaks the green delight she felt before the years embrittled her bones.

No flakes fall near the musician, as her case fills with coins. After a while, she scoops them and wolfs hot pastries and steaming coffee before resuming, playing on through the day. When she rests in the darkening afternoon, snow begins to fall around her, piling whiteness on whiteness, laying a carpet of crystal beneath her feet.

Before she hurries away, she glances once more over her shoulder. No-one is following her, she notes with relief.

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Conan Doyle and his belief in ghosts – a talk

Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light, 1887 - 1920, by Matt Wingett

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is renowned primarily for one thing: the creation of the world’s first consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Yet, there was far more to the man, including his prominence in later life as a leading Spiritualist.

For many who regard Holmes’s rational take on the world as a wonderful example of applied logic and empiricism, his belief in ghosts can be something of an unfortunate fact that doesn’t fit in with their view. Many rationalise that after the death of his son, Kingsley, in World War I, Sir Arthur turned to Spiritualism for comfort, and became increasingly obsessed with the belief.

This view is wrong. In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle first announced himself to be a Spiritualist in 1887 in a letter to the occult magazine “Light”. It was the very same year that his first novel starring Sherlock Holmes “A Study In Scarlet” was published.

Both of these events happened during a deeply influential period of his life in Southsea, where he was working as a GP at Bush Villas on Elm Grove.

How he came to be a devout Spiritualist, the twists and turns of his faith, and how he regarded his Spiritualism as for more important than his ficitional detective is a fascinating story. It involves ghost stories, poltergeist investigations, approaches from secret societies and a belief that science would one day prove the existence of the soul.

It’s this world that I explore in my book Conan Doyle and The Mysterious World of Light, 1887-1920, and which I elucidate in my talks on the matter.

I’m delighted when an audience finds out new things about this fascinating person. After all, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was very, very much more than a teller of tall tales, as my talk on the matter reveals!

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A Talk at The Temple of Spiritualism, Southsea 5th Aug 2016

02 Arthur_Conan_DoyleA lovely email from Sue Hayes at the Southsea Temple of Spiritualism, where I gave a talk about Conan Doyle’s faith on 5th August 2016:
 
Dear Matt
Thank you so much for your talk, knowledge and enthusiasm that you displayed in the Temple on Friday evening. As you were aware from the response, your talk was very much appreciated. I think you are a brilliant speaker – most engaging and inclusive. Thank you.
 
Richard was absolutely amazed that someone who is not a Spiritualist has such a knowledge of Spiritualism. There are very few people at present in SNU Spiritualism who would know as much as you do, and have such an objective and informed attitude. Thank you for that.
 
We would love you to come and speak again in the future, for you to share more of your knowledge and wisdom with us.
 
With very good wishes to you and Jackie
Sue Hayes
General Secretary/Officiant
Portsmouth Temple of Spiritualism
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The Fall, Cruiser’s Creek – fresh because it’s so yesterday.

I love this. The cinematography is so crude and amateurish, the behaviour in front of camera so unstudied that it reminds me of the early experiments in film with Dada Movement, or early silent movies. It is both guileless and wonderful. As if walking in front of a camera is enough in itself to be interesting. That’s anarchic, and really refreshing in an age of such self consciousness in front of the camera.

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Henry Vaughan’s “World of Light” and Conan Doyle’s Ghosts

9780957241381I was looking at some poetry a few days ago and I found this wonderful poem by Welsh 17th Century poet Henry Vaughan, about life after death.

I was struck by the phrase “the world of light” – which is how he describes the afterlife.

I found it an interesting coincidence that I had come up with the same phrase for my book, “Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light“.

 

 

THEY ARE ALL GONE INTO THE WORLD OF LIGHT
by Henry Vaughan

They are all gone into the world of light!
And I alone sit ling’ring here;
Their very memory is fair and bright,
And my sad thoughts doth clear.

It glows and glitters in my cloudy breast,
Like stars upon some gloomy grove,
Or those faint beams in which this hill is drest,
After the sun’s remove.

I see them walking in an air of glory,
Whose light doth trample on my days:
My days, which are at best but dull and hoary,
Mere glimmering and decays.

O holy Hope! and high Humility,
High as the heavens above!
These are your walks, and you have show’d them me
To kindle my cold love.

Dear, beauteous Death! the jewel of the just,
Shining nowhere, but in the dark;
What mysteries do lie beyond thy dust
Could man outlook that mark!

He that hath found some fledg’d bird’s nest, may know
At first sight, if the bird be flown;
But what fair well or grove he sings in now,
That is to him unknown.

And yet as angels in some brighter dreams
Call to the soul, when man doth sleep:
So some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes
And into glory peep.

If a star were confin’d into a tomb,
Her captive flames must needs burn there;
But when the hand that lock’d her up, gives room,
She’ll shine through all the sphere.

O Father of eternal life, and all
Created glories under thee!
Resume thy spirit from this world of thrall
Into true liberty.

Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.

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Power to Persuade: the techniques used by Paul McKenna for Brexit.

paul“Whoever is orchestrating the Leave campaign, I have to admit, they’re brilliant,” I said to a friend a few days before the referendum vote. “They understand exactly the rules of persuasion.”

On the side I favoured, the Remain camp was floundering in very much the way the same crew had floundered in the final days of the Scottish Independence referendum before that final intervention – The Vow. They had fallen into the same mistakes: relying on warnings, and apparently plucking apocalyptic figures out of the air.

The Leave camp was also making unfounded promises, lying and misrepresenting the facts. But there was something qualitatively different between the two campaigns, and that was in the structure of the information they imparted.

“The Leave campaign,” I said to my friend, “is in a different league.”

Years before, I had studied persuasion while attending trainings with hypnotist Paul McKenna and his mentor, Dr Richard Bandler, in a widely misunderstood field called NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

NLP is a fascinating subject. It studies the structures of human thinking, in order to guide the flow of behavioural responses. It does this through linguistic and non-linguistic communication which may be delivered at an unconscious or semi-conscious level. It therefore bypasses reason.

It has its critics, which divide roughly into two camps. There are those who say it is manipulative and unethical, and the others who say it doesn’t work and is snake oil. As Dr Bandler often points out in interview, both cannot be true. NLP is not unethical in itself, but like any tool, it can be used unethically.

Central to the training we received was the observation that decisions, thoughts and behaviour are dependent on emotional state. Hence, if you are angry with someone, it is very difficult to remember that you love them. If you are in love with someone, it is easier to forgive them; if you like someone, you are more likely to be relaxed with them and trust them, and so on. Reasoning is continually influenced by emotions; not to recognise that is to lay yourself open to all sorts of errors of judgement through other people’s influence.

Understanding how emotion works enables you to get different outcomes from your interactions. For example, after an argument, it is probably a mistake to immediately seek forgiveness. The rage is still too high in the person from whom you are seeking forgiveness. First you must change their state, or wait for their state to change. Then you can get a better result from your appeal.

Understanding the structure of emotions and how they are inter-related is central to one of the key uses of NLP: persuasion. That is why in the hands of a skilled practitioner, NLP is an extremely effective tool when it comes to sales.

This should not come as a surprise. Dr Richard Bandler, the inventor of the term NLP spent years studying and modelling the ways that persuasive salespeople operate. He didn’t invent good sales techniques – he codified them. Through his observations, he came to understand that a salesperson first of all builds a rapport with his audience so they in some way identify with the saleperson. This makes the customer less critical and more trusting of what the salesperson says.

That’s step 1: the gaining of trust through rapport.

Next comes the creation of a “propulsion system” – meaning a way to get someone to take an action, or to change their thinking.

In Richard’s terms, propulsion systems operate quite simply. Firstly you generate a picture or idea of the current situation that’s so awful the subject wants to move away from it. Having built up an emotion of revulsion or disgust, you then simply create its antithesis, a scenario or situation that the subject wants to move towards. Moving towards this happier scenario or idea relieves the revulsion previously built up. It therefore feels like it’s the answer to the problem presented.

This technique can be used for all sorts of things, not just sales. For example, Richard observed that those who kicked an addiction often reported that life had to get so bad for them that they were desperate to change. There it is again: moving away from – moving towards.

Recreating this pattern of thinking deliberately for his clients, Richard laid out the negatives of current behaviour and the extraordinary positives of a new behaviour. Crucially, this was not done as an intellectual exercise. It required the firing up of the emotions to make the change, because psychologists have long known that the will is the least effective part of the psyche to employ if you want to make a change.

In many cases, it works. Bandler found that addicts then committed themselves to new behaviours willingly and with their whole being, rather than making an intellectual decision which they easily broke when they were overwhelmed by an emotion.

Exactly this model was used by the Leave camp. First rapport building, then creating, or describing or presenting a bad situation that was apparently unsolvable was followed by what appeared to be the only solution that would alleviate the bad feeling: leaving the EU. It was, in NLP terms, technically brilliant.

I looked on, thinking that surely our side, the Remain side, must have their own advisers. Cameron, having been involved in political strategy for years, must also have someone who understood the structure of persuasion in the way the Leavers did.

Quite the opposite appeared to be the case.

The Remain camp appeared to have no concept of rapport building. They wheeled out economists and experts who essentially spoke down to the public, alienating those who were of a different class or background.

Then there was Eddie Izzard. If anyone could have been better chosen to alienate conservative-minded voters concerned at the way society had changed over the last few decades, a man in a dress with a pink beret could not have been better chosen. For Leave voters, he represented exactly the sort of moral decay that a friend’s Aunt Beryl summed up in her reasons for leaving: “I just want Britain to be like it was.”

The timbre of the Remain discussion was also very limited, and boiled down to basically half a persuasion strategy.

They repeatedly told people how bad things would be in the future outside of the EU – a good moving away from strategy. But they didn’t tie it together directly with a positive message. Like, for example, the fact that the economy was doing very well and we were about to overtake Germany and become the largest economy in the bloc in the next few years. Those different sides were mentioned, but were not tied together in a persuasive whole. The simple message of wanting to move away from one dark future towards another brighter one was not explicitly presented. Instead, only the down side was emphasised.

The problem with repeating the same strategy over and over again is that it begins to wear thin. Nor is it good enough to say, “to avoid that awful future, you must accept a continuation of this dull present.” It just doesn’t work that way, especially when the other side is offering jam tomorrow, if only you will be brave enough to make that change.

And there is the next part of the NLP persuasion strategy. Reframing objections. The Leavers cleverly reframed the notion of recklessness to bravery. Hence, Leavers weren’t foolhardy, they were intrepid. Once again, a negative was replaced with a positive. In contrast, Remainers were craven cowards afraid to “Take Back Control”. This slogan was thus attached to a positive self image, and became a simple way to encapsulate that feelgood factor in one simple slogan.

In NLP training, you are taught that the unconscious vibrates to such messages and feels better about itself again. This emotional orientation feeds on itself. Unconsciously, you have accepted that this course of action is right. It feels right, after all. Your unconscious can’t help itself. It wants to move towards a happier self image (at least in most cases) and a future associated with good feelings.

The power of the reframe was not understood by the Remain camp. The best David Cameron could do was to present his message in negative terms, saying, “I don’t believe we are quitters.” Really? Well, if you don’t believe that’s what we are, what do you think we actually are? People don’t like being called names. They like to have their egos massaged. Once again, only half the persuasion strategy was employed. No wonder the Leavers started to make real changes in people’s attitudes – not through reason, but through feeling.

Another strategy in persuasion techniques is that of inoculation. This is a technique which pre-empts objections to an argument, and seeks to neutralise it beforehand. This is exactly what happened whenever the Remain camp delivered their warnings for the future. For an NLP-savvy debater, this is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel. Tie a negative connotation to this warning behaviour and you invalidate it, especially if you have followers already keen to hear your argument, and already beginning to be sold on it.

Hence the repeated use of the terms “Project Fear” (borrowed from the Scottish referendum) and “scaremongering”. Soon, everything the Remainers said was scaremongering. The word was repeated by the Leavers over and over again, until it became anchored in the minds of its audience. It was brilliant. They played on emotions superbly. And even when they themselves stated stupid observations, like the one that said 80 million Turks would be able to move to the UK, the Leavers managed to drown out the counterargument from the Remainers that this too was scaremongering. They’d got there first with that one.

Much has been made of Michael Gove’s dismissive comment that we’ve all heard enough from experts. This, too, was brilliant inoculation and rapport building at the same time. It made Gove look as if he, too, were someone with no respect for education and was a common man. If you think about it, it is quite an extraordinary claim from a man who had been trying for years (by his own definition) to bring value back to education as Education Secretary. It was an extraordinarily dishonest line to take. Yet it worked. It spoke to the masses. “If he says we can ignore experts, well, we bloody well can!”

This is why this debate was so extraordinarily light on facts. The Leave campaign’s manifesto ran to a mere 1293 words, which is less than this article. Leave didn’t need facts. They needed anger and hope harnessed together to make the changes they needed.
So, it was brilliant NLP. I watched the campaign through the gaps in my fingers over my eyes. It was a slowmo car crash. I could see mistake on mistake being made by Remain, and no-one seemed to understand what was going wrong.

After the stomach churning result was delivered, it began to make sense. After the dust settled it became clear that at least one seriously heavy duty NLPer was on the Leave side. Paul McKenna, the Guardian reveals, is a friend of Arron Banks, who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign. How far he was involved in the campaign is uncertain, though Paul will have at least cast his eye over the campaign material and advised on giving it tweaks.

Some people will complain that the Leave campaign was dishonest by doing this. There is no doubt at all that they were dishonest in many of their claims, but I suspect it wasn’t their specific claims where Paul’s real power came through.

What Leave wanted, and what they achieved, was an emotionally charged debate within which they could covertly make changes in attitudes in some of those who were undecided. As a supreme technician, this is Paul McKenna’s genius. He is just very, very good at what he does.

Whether it was ethical for the Leave camp to employ such tactics over a matter so vital to the future of the country, as opposed to selling someone a pair of shoes, is another matter. I know what I think about it, but this is not a discussion on that aspect of Paul’s brilliance.

The reality of the situation is, however, that the Remain side were out of date. They were using reason against emotion, the equivalent of using old field Howitzers against a side armed with cruise missiles.

And that is why we lost. We were outclassed at every move. Whoever made the decision not to take advice from people who understood the language and structure of persuasion was, in the end, the cause of our downfall.

I suspect that was Cameron, judging by his poor grasp of strategy.

A final thought: one of the major elements taught by Paul and by Richard in their NLP trainings is that such powerful techniques must be applied ethically. There is a practical reason for this advice. An ethical strategy prevents buyer’s remorse. A buyer who genuinely has their needs met doesn’t look up a few months later and think: hey, I was duped!

Whether this applies to this decision over the coming months, remains to be seen. I’m sure there will be much reinforcement of the message going on right now. That, too, is an NLP technique.

So what is the lesson? In the past, ancient kings consulted stargazers and mystics before battle and had spells cast for them. The modern politician must learn to do the same, otherwise he will enter the field at a massive disadvantage. Because people reason on the back of feelings, it’s vital to get their emotions right first, so they are receptive to your message. Once the mood is right, then it is also vital that you understand exactly how you are going to structure and deliver your message. It’s not just a question of getting up and treating it like an amateur schoolboy at an Eton debating society.

The Arcane Arts, then, are back in fashion.

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Has Boris and Cameron’s secret pact unravelled?

There is a narrative developing on the left that Boris Johnson never intended to take Britain out of Europe and is, right now, shitting his pants at the demons he has unleashed. Various stories tell it differently. Some suggest that he joined the Brexit campaign after previously being strongly pro-Europe to position himself with UKIP voters and other far right extremists.

On this take on history, Johnson expected not to win, but to steal the electoral base from far righters such as Farage, the BNP and other fascists, to lead the Tories under his leadership into a new term. The narrative goes, this explains why he looked so grim and ashen-faced on Friday morning and called for delay in invoking Article 50. It is true that he certainly didn’t look ecstatic, and has given a speech since the result telling Remainers that “we are part of Europe”.

It’s an interesting take, and one that could easily be true. Two arrogant Bullingdon boys allowing their sacred bonds formed at Uni and their arrogance at their perceived stupidity of the working classes to think they could pull a fast one over them. This all is possible.
However, the argument then goes on that neither Cameron nor Johnson will EVER invoke Article 50. This is dangerous politics. Whatever the machinations and hidden motives behind the result, WE CANNOT AFFORD TO THINK THIS WILL NEVER HAPPEN.
Push, now. Push for a second referendum. We have a short window in which Boris and Cameron are paralysed in the headlights of history. We must ensure we get a second referendum. The lies of the Leavers have been exposed. Many voters didn’t vote, many are shocked at the lies unravelling so quickly. The nation is in flux and we have not yet embarked on a course that would see us sailing away from Europe forever. WE MUST ACT NOW.

Some of you may be thinking “oh well, the referendum – it is all decided” and give up. No. Countries across Europe have a history of re-running referenda until the desired answer is given. Farage would certainly not have let this go. Remember, a referendum is advisory data for Parliament to consider. They are not legally bound to act on it. We have a short window to make ourselves heard.

Already there is a second narrative being driven by the media. It talks about “regrexit” – those people who just voted to stick one to the Establishment without thinking their vote counted. It may be true, it may be spin by a shocked, liberal-minded media. But it is a lifeline. We should grasp it.

I urge you, now – sign the petition on the UK government site. Act now. There is still a chance that we can save this country from the abyss. Do not give up the fight. And do not fall into cynicism. If you care about this country and your lives, push for a clear result. Remember, the Farage would certainly be doing so, in this position. We are in extra time. We have all to play for.

Now, mobilise.

https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/131215

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Does Disney’s new Jungle Book do Pompey’s Rudyard Kipling justice?

Disney’s 1960s adaptation of The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book is a classic of silliness with great tunes. It also has, apart from the title and the names of the characters, nothing to do with the pair of children’s books written by Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s. The books are far darker, deeper, truer and better in every way. So, what of the new 2016 version?

I admit I was late to Kipling. I only read The Jungle Books as an adult, having been steered away from them by the light and frothy cartoon. But, one day, having read that they were true classics, and considering Kipling’s Portsmouth pedigree, I thought I would check out the work of this locally grown boy.

Kipling’s life in Portsmouth was tough. Left in the town by his parents, who returned to India where they worked as civil servants, he found himself in the clutches of a psychotic nanny, Mrs Holloway, to whom he later referred in his autobiography Something of Myself as “The Woman”. Six years of hell ensued, as she terrorised him, punishing him for the tiniest, ordinary things kids do – even punishing him for “showing off” when it was discovered he needed to wear glasses. Justice for such transgressions took the form of beatings, and of being locked in the house alone while the household went on holidays, or prevented from reading, which he averred, made him seek to read all the more earnestly. It was bad. In fact, his life in Southsea led to a nervous breakdown at the age of 11.

Little wonder that many of the short stories in The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book tell the tale of a child, Mowgli, abandoned in a hostile jungle where he must learn The Law to survive. This is a direct reflection of his own experiences. No surprise, either, that Mowgli grows up determined to kill his tormentor, in this case, the lame tiger Shere Khan. In another story written after The Jungle Books, Kipling produced a fictionalised account of life in Southsea, Baa Baa Black Sheep. In this, the boy threatens to burn down the house of Aunt Rosa (this story’s verson of The Woman), to kill her and her son and wreak awful revenge on the boys who bully him at school at Rosa’s instigation.

Despite all this darkness in Kipling’s childhood and in the childhood of Mowgli, The Jungle Books are filled with wonders. The behaviour of the animals to each other and to Mowgli, of the man-cub’s learning to become socialised into the group and the adventures he has along the way are rich in poetic truths. From the specifics of an imagined boy’s life, one learns the way real human society works and how a child must learn to fit into his environment and still be himself. Thus, the learning of secret words which will make the animals help him (interestingly, Kipling also wrote about Freemasonry – another society using secret codes, in The Man Who Would Be King; the motif of secret communication returned again in Kim); or his kidnap by the Bandar Log monkey tribe, during which he discovers their utter fecklessness; or the wise guiding paw of the old bear, Baloo.

Striking is the choice of antiquated modes of speaking, which emphasise the formal and informal. Throughout the book, the animals refer to each other as “thou”. This convention, and the semi-mythical register they speak in makes the stories read almost like religious texts at times. They feel powerful in a way that most children’s books don’t – and truer because of it.

Of the final vengeance Mowgli wreaks on Shere Khan, the tiger’s brutal death and how Mowgli skins the body and brings the hide to The Council Rock where the wolves meet to discuss The Law of the Jungle, that section is truly horrific.

So, how does the new Disney live action / CGI movie fare?

Neel Sethi in Disney's The Jungle Book

The movie is, actually, pretty good. It is in many ways truer to the spirit of the books than the 1960s aberration that does so little to recognise Kipling’s genius. Bagheera, the black panther, is sleek, noble and powerful. Baloo, annoyingly, is a charming buffoon – a hangover, I suspect, from the cartoon. Kaa, the giant snake is, inaccurately, interested only in eating Mowgli, whereas in the original stories their relationship is far more subtle – and indeed in the books it is Kaa who saves Mowgli from the Bandar Log when he arrives at the last minute after Baloo and Bagheera are overrun. Kaa’s hypnotic fascination of the monkeys is spine-chilling in the book.

In the movie, the collection of stories is streamlined. So, it is now Bagheera who finds Mowgli, whereas it is the boy himself who walks to Raksha, the she-wolf, in her cave, and is adopted by her. It is she who faces down Shere Khan who tracks him there. All this is removed from the story, understandably so, because the relationships would become too tangled.

What suffers because of this is the subtlety and nuance of the many-faceted stories and their meanings as they are pulled together into a single narrative, and, unfortunately the film takes on a far too familiar shape. Mowgli has an arch enemy, Shere Khan, and must acquire the skills to overcome him by finding his true self. It is the old story of the Hero’s Journey – pretty much the secret origin story of every single superhero movie that has been made in the last 20 years. It feels as if Hollywood has forgotten that there are other stories than those told by the DC and Marvel franchises.

There is one outstanding positive about this movie, however. Neel Sethi is the only real person we see in it, and he is utterly convincing. How he acted against green screens opposite non-existent co-actors is difficult to imagine. Sure, there would have been stand-ins for him to play against in the scenes, but the act of sustained imagination required of acting in such an environment is impressive. One moment sums it up for me. Mowgli is sitting on Baloo’s stomach floating down the river, when the bear unexpectedly splashes him. The look on Sethi’s face is one of genuine surprise. It feels utterly real – and this with a character made of digitalised pixels.

In other ways, the choice of Sethi as Mowgli is perplexing. He has long gangling legs in the film, and seems often to shuffle around, as if he is picking his way along a stony beach, barefoot – surely not the way a child born to jungle life would move. This, again, is perhaps a call back to the perennially annoying Disney cartoon in which Mowgli is comically gawky.

Towards its end, the movie descends into the Bond-villain-meets-his-doom denouement that this type of production can’t avoid.

So, what happens to Shere Khan being trampled to death and skinned in an act of concerted pack revenge?

All this is gone. Instead, Mowgli faces the tiger alone, and consigns him to the flames in a grandiose fall into a jungle fire. It is a very different feeling from the books, which emphasise co-operation. This is the story of a hero acting alone.

Nevertheless, this is a good effort. Unlike the 1960s cartoon, it does have something to do with the books it is named after. Not as much as I would like, but at least a little bit.

Perhaps it is a good thing that these films are so different from the books. After all, the books continue to stand in their own right as a separate – and far superior – entity to the Disney versions.

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