Tag Archives: Portsmouth

A New Book – Mysteries of Portsmouth, Chapter 1

01. Ancient Mysteries of Portsmouth

The earliest accounts of Portsmouth

Most historians agree the little Hampshire village of Portchester is the father of the city of Portsmouth, and was already an ancient settlement when Portsmouth was a muddy island with a few fishing and hunting communities scattered across it. Portchester’s Roman castle (the best preserved example north of the Alps) dates back to the 3rd Century, and was built as part of the Saxon Shore defences designed to protect Britain from marauding Saxon invaders. But even back then when Portus Adurni was new (as the Romans called Portchester Castle), the settlement at Portchester was already ancient.

Before we jump into the mysteries and legends of Portchester, let’s look at what we know for sure about the village and castle, at the point it emerges from the mists of myth into history.

Portchester – Heart of an Empire

The man in command of Portchester Castle and the rest of the Saxon Shore castles just after they were built in the 3rd Century was also the commander of the Classis Britannica, the Roman Fleet that protected the English Channel from pirates. Carausius had started as a Belgian pilot and fighter, but proved so effective as a leader of men that he rose through the ranks of the fleet. A brilliant sea fighter, he had impressive success in quelling Saxon and Frankish piracy in the English Channel, both in Gaul and Britain and was given control of the fleet.

However, rumours soon began to circulate around Rome that Carausius often would wait for Saxon pirates to make raids before he engaged with them – thus enabling him to help himself to the treasure they had stolen, and keep it for himself.

Whether this was the gossip of jealous rivals or true, the effect was that in 286, Roman Emperor Diocletian sentenced Carausius to death. This proved to be a tactical error, because Carausius was still in Britain at the time. When Carausius heard he was being recalled to Rome to meet his fate, he realised he had nothing to lose, declared Britain a separate empire equal to Rome, and drove off Roman attacks.

Secure in his independence behind his forts, Carausius set about creating a rival state to Rome. He minted his own coins from high quality bullion that he hoped would boost his credibility over his Roman rivals and set about running an independent Britannia.

This early version of Brexit came to an end after his betrayal in 293 by his treasurer, Allectus, and Britain was once again taken back under Roman Imperial control.

Carausius’s story is a pretty exciting early history… but there are many more myths and legends. They include bloodthirsty betrayals, murder, a giant, the Holy Grail… and even King Arthur himself!

The Myth of Ferrex and Perrex

Ancient chronicler and recorder of unreliable histories, Geoffrey of Monmouth, wrote in his History Of The Kings Of Britain in the 1200s that the original British name for Portchester was Caer Peris. He tells the following story as to how it got its name:

Around 491 BCE, two brothers lived in terrible rivalry. They were the sons of King Sisil “The Fox”, who founded the town of Silchester, and was so successful a leader that he was declared supreme chieftain of the area.

Though he had been a great chieftain, he hadn’t been able to control the bitter rivalry between his two sons Ferrex and Perrex, and after he died, they went to war with each other to gain control of their father’s lands. Ferrex, his mother’s favourite, was forced to retreat to Gaul by Perrex after a fierce battle. When Ferrex raised an army and returned to fight his brother, things went wrong for him again. This time, Perrex defeated and slew his brother.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us Perrex set about founding the fortified town where the Roman Portchester Castle would later stand, naming it Caer Peris – that is, Perrex’s Castle.

This is not the end of the story, however. Perrex’s mother, Idon, enraged at the fate of her favourite son, stole into Perrex’s room while he was asleep, and with the help of her maidens “cut him all in pieces.”

This is not a recommended model of motherhood.

Gurguntus and Beline

Another mythical beginning to Portchester is told by a later historian, Stow, who attributes the founding of Porchester to Gurguntus, the son of Beline in the year 375 BCE. However, Stow also says the same thing happened in Norwich with the same people in the same year – so it might be that he got a little bit muddled.

Nothing much more is offered about this supposed founding of the fortifications – however, it should be said there are many archaeological remains dating back to the pre-Christian era in the area. So, whether there’s any truth in these early myths or not, there’s no doubt there was early settlement and the building of defensive structures in the Portchester long before the Romans came.

Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and Pompey (or Cymbeline’s sons, anyway)

The next mention Geoffrey of Monmouth makes of Caer Peris brings is to the First Century, during the period the Romans were still quelling the troublesome and rebellious Britons, after the Roman invasion in the year 43.

This account involves a young British king, Guiderius, the son of one king Cunobelinus, otherwise known as Cymbeline to anyone who knows their Shakespeare.

“After the death of Cymbeline,” writes Geoffrey, “the government of Britain fell to Guiderius, his son. This prince refused to pay tribute to the Romans, for which reason Claudius, Emperor of Rome, marched against him.”

The story goes that Hamo, the commander of the Roman forces made an attack on Caer Peris, and “began to block up the gate with a wall,” probably with the view of starving the inhabitants into surrender.

In the fighting that followed, Hamo killed Guiderius.

However, this was not the end of the matter. Guiderius’s brother, Arviragus, mightily enraged, took command of the Britons. They fought so desperately under him that they drove the Romans back to their galleys.

Once more, this was not the end of the matter. Later, when the Britons had departed, Claudius assaulted the fortification again, and this time he took it for Rome.

The rest, as they say, is history. Literally.

King Arthur and the invasion of Portsmouth

Another ancient story about the defence of Portsmouth takes us fully into the realms of Arthurian Romance.

Many of the early King Arthur stories date back to a time when Britain was being invaded by Saxon tribes, just after the Romans had left Britain’s shores as the Empire came under increasing attack at the centre.

The reality or otherwise of King Arthur is hotly debated. Whether Arthur was an imaginary folk hero spoken about around British camp fires to keep up British morale hundreds of years later, a soldier in the battles that occurred between the Britons and the Saxons, a vestige of a sungod (the twelve battles he fights that push him further West, his death, disappearance in the west and subsequent promised return are an interesting echo of the twelve months of the year, sunset and sunrise) or something else, doesn’t really matter for this book. The stories that have been woven around this most enigmatic of figures who stands on the boundaries of history and mythology are as rich in story detail as he is elusive in fact. But what’s great about Arthur is the amazing amount of stories this figure has inspired.

From soldier, through war leader, to king and finally emperor of a vast land, the legends about Arthur are increasingly embellished by the romance writers of the Middle Ages. In fact, the first description of Arthur as “emperor” is found in connection with Portsmouth. It’s in a poem dedicated to the death of another Celtic hero of Welsh literature – Geraint mab Erbin, that is, Geraint son of Erbin.

Geraint was a popular figure associated with southwestern Britain and South Wales in the late 6th century. He became most famous for an entirely fictional romance written about him in Welsh called Geraint and Enid, which mimics a similar 12th Century poem by French mediaeval poet Chretien de Troyes.

But Geraint had been around in literature long before this romance, and older poems speak about him as a real person. Thus, the very much earlier poem Geraint son of Erbin appears to be a true lament for the death of a British hero, killed in battle.

The location of the confrontation is given as Llongborth – meaning “haven of ships”, which writers and historians have identified with Langport in Somerset – or with Portsmouth harbour. The poem tells of the slaying of Geraint, a Celtic prince, by the Saxons in the 6th Century.

Could the ancient poem really be Portsmouth-related? Is there any other evidence of a battle in the 6th Century in Portsmouth in which a British hero was killed?

Interestingly enough, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles also contain a mention of the invasion of Portsmouth for the year 501 , as follows:

Port and his two sons, Bieda and Mægla, came with two ships to Britain at the place which is called Portsmouth. They soon landed, and slew on this spot a young Briton of very high rank.

Is it possible that the poem Geraint mab Erbin actually tells of the death of that same young prince mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles? And if Geraint a figure of myth was real, is it possible there was an Arthur after all?

It’s circumstantial evidence, but there are plenty who are convinced it’s true!

Ancient Burials and Brutal Deaths on Portsdown Hill

Staying on the theme of slain ancient warriors, it’s worth noting that at the top of Portsdown Hill as you head east toward the cutting where the A3(M) now slices through the chalk cliffs at the Havant end, around 1816, a tantalising discovery was made by labourers. Local historian Lake Allen tells the story in his 1817 History of Portsmouth:

Some labourers being employed in quarrying chalk during the month of September last, accidentally broke into a tumulus situated on the South side of the hill near the telegraph. The form of it appeared to be a parallelogram, extending East and West about 100 feet, in breadth about 20 feet, and in height 6 feet. In this tumulus or Barrow were discovered the remains of twelve bodies, some placed in cists, others laid only on the surface of the chalk, and covered by heaping the surrounding soil on them. The skeleton that was last discovered occupied a grave distinct from the others, but evidently too short for the stature of the person interred; loose flags were placed on it, their ends resting on the chalk. The radius and ulna were laid across the frame; the latter was the only bone entire, and was rather shorter than that of a well proportioned man. The occipital bone bore marks of petrifaction, and at the juncture of the temporal with the parietal bone, on the right side, was found inserted an iron head of a spear.

What became of these relics I do not know. But is it possible that the spearhead found in this body was none other than the one used by Porta to slay Geraint mab Erbin? It’s too much of a coincidence, surely..? And since we can’t examine the orginals, how can we ever know? But a man in a tomb, killed by an iron spear, hurriedly buried under loose flagstones by a vanquished army… is it too much of a stretch of the imagination to at least wish it were true?

Bevis’s Grave

Another archaeological site with mythical connotations lies near the one described by Lake Allen on Portsdown Hill. Again, heading east toward the motorway bridge, in the fields north of the road is the site of an ancient burial mound, Bevis’s Grave.

This was a giant long barrow – around 88m by 25m long with ditches to north and south. These days, it is largely buried, with only a part of it rising about half a metre above the ground. Nevertheless, it is actually about 4,500 to 5,500 years old. Part of an antler, probably the remains of a pick, was excavated from the ditches, along with sherds of late Neolithic and Bronze Age pottery.

In fact, the whole area along the crest of Portsdown Hill is rich in archaeological sites. Nearby is an area of early medieval burials, including two Saxon burials and eighty Christian graves dating from the 8th and 9th centuries. Who knew, as you take your dog for a walk or drive down into Havant that you are surrounded by so many relics of the deep, distant past?

So, back to Bevis. Who was he? And why is this his grave?

Bevis was a mediaeval knight from a Middle English romance called Sir Bevis of Hampton from around 1324. (Those of my generation will understand when I say I don’t believe that anywhere in the text is a mention of a companion or squire called Sir Butthead.)

Here are the bare bones of the romance:

Bevis is the son of Guy, count of Hampton (aka Southampton). Guy’s young wife, a daughter of the King of Scotland is unhappy in marriage and asks a former lover, Devoun, Emperor of Germany, to kill her husband. He happily sends an army to oblige and Guy is murdered in a forest. Fearful that their ten-year-old son Bevis will seek revenge, she decides that he, too, must die.

Saved by a faithful tutor, the young Bevis is later sold to pirates. After many adventures, Bevis ends up at the court of King Hermin, which is situated either in Egypt or Armenia – the writer is a bit vague on the details of where exactly. Bevis is involved in numerous exploits, including the defeat of Ascapart, a legendary giant from English folklore, and falls in love with the king’s daughter, Josiane. The king then sends Bevis on a mission to deliver a sealed letter to King Bradmond of Damascus. Bevis, not realising the letter requests Bradmond to execute him duly delivers it. He is imprisoned, escapes, finally wreaks vengeance on his stepfather and claims his inheritance. However, he is then separated from Josiane, and both are forced into false marriages, until in the end they are reunited at last.

It would make a great movie.

So, there it is. Though the barrow’s original inhabitant is long forgotten, a wonderful story has filled it with fresh life.

And that is the nature of legends, after all.

Hayling Island – home of the Holy Grail?

Whilst we are looking at ancient mysteries and the Celts, let’s have a look at another figure from the Roman era who some legends say came to Britain. That is none other than Jesus Christ.

A particular theory I stumbled over in an unusual pamphlet some time ago comes from the pen of a now-deceased local writer called Victor Pierce Jones. It puts forward the eccentric idea that the Holy Grail was, or is, buried at Hayling Island. In his book Glastonbury Myth or Southern Mystery, the author seeks to prove that “Jesus travelled from the Holy Land as a youth, lived on the south coast and was given a cup when he departed”- a cup which Joseph of Arimathea brought back to Britain after Christ’s death on the cross, “returning it to his first disciples and friends” in no place other than Havant – which is actually the “real site of Avalon”.

Further questions raised by the author include: “Did Merlin live at My Lord’s Pond, on Hayling Island? Did King Arthur find Excalibur at Havant? Was the Holy Grail found by Benedictine monks and a Knight Templar on Hayling – and is it still hidden there?”

Along the way, the author manages to include many of the ancient sites already mentioned in this book and some of its characters. King Arthur gets a look in, as does Bevis, William the Conqueror and countless duplicitous Glastonbury monks. Argued with a passion, it is quite joyous and, I personally think, completely bonkers.

But that’s just me. The construction of the argument is a work of art, and for seekers after mysteries, it’s a slim volume with which you can fill your boots!

An Ancient Ghost, A Countess Beheaded

There are many ghost stories associated with Portsmouth and the surrounding area. Here is one from Warblington to whet your appetite:

Five hundred years ago at Warblington, by the ever-moving waters of Langstone Harbour once stood a magnificent castle, of which only a few vestiges remain, and on whose ruins in the 18th century, a farmhouse was built. In its heyday it was one of the chief guesthouses of the Earls of Salisbury. The ghost that haunts the site is that of the unhappy Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. She once lived here in great state, dividing much of her time between Warblington and Lordington Manor, near Racton, which was commissioned by her husband Richard.

Their children included Cardinal Reginald Pole, who was the last Catholic Archbishop of England during the period of the Reformation, in which Henry came into direct conflict with Rome. Cardinal Pole was unbending in his attitudes to Henry VIII and strongly criticised him for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He also warned against his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Sensing danger from the king’s growing impatience and anger with him, Cardinal Pole went into exile in France, where he finally denounced Henry to the other princes of Europe.

The ruthless tyrant Henry VIII attempted an assassination of Pole, but when this failed avenged himself by having Pole’s family arrested. His mother, Margaret, Countess of Salisbury was imprisoned in the Tower of London for two and a half years on trumped-up political charges. She was finally beheaded at Tower Hill in 1541, the last surviving issue from the direct male bloodline of the Plantagenet kings of England. Only one family member survived, her son Geoffrey Pole, who fled into exile in Europe. The Pole family was thus completely destroyed as a dynasty by their spiteful and merciless king.

Accounts of Margaret’s execution tell of a grisly end.

On the morning of 27 May 1541, in front of a crowd of 150 people, Lady Pole was led to the scaffold where she was expected to say a few pious words and submit to her fate. But the 67-year-old had no intention of going quietly. She refused to kneel or lay her head on the block, and told the executioner he would have to strike her head off where she stood. Guards roughly took her resisting form to the block, where the executioner raised his axe… and – thrown off his stroke by her defiance – swung the blade and struck her in the shoulder.

In agony, Lady Pole jumped up shrieking, gushing blood into her white hair. The executioner chased her, wildly swinging his axe. It took eleven bloody blows before she finally died. Legend in the Tower of London says that on the anniversary of her death, her ghost is seen in the night, her white hair streaming with blood from her many wounds – forever pursued by her phantom executioner.

After the destruction of the Pole family, the estate was forfeited to the Crown, and a few years later, Thomas Cromwell had Warblington Castle demolished. What was left of it then fell into decay and farmhouses were built over part of it.

A local story tells of a different sighting of a spirit at the site. It says that the ghost of the beheaded and tragic Countess Margaret Pole haunts the ruins, as she mourns the passing of her lost life and her magnificent home.

How the mighty may fall!

*

Please note – There are many more ghost stories to come in the pages of this book, but first, let’s discover the Lost Lands around Portsmouth…

Portsmouth: Be Inspired

As some of you may know, one of the things I try to do with writers is inspire them to get on and write, to support them when I can and to pass on the gift of encouragement and inspiration when I can. I was reminded earlier this week of times I have done that in the past – and I will always try to do it in the future.

One of the things that I’ve really found psychologically helpful is knowing that, actually, my home town has produced the most extraordinary writers over the years. It’s very easy, especially in a town like Portsmouth that on the surface can appear bleak and provincial to start thinking “No one from this town has really made it in writing”. To think so would be wrong, of course, but the psychological effect of such thinking is to hold you back. That’s why, sometimes you need to be reminded of the counter-examples.

It’s noted that before Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile, it was generally considered an impossibility that anyone would break that record. Afterwards, when the counter-example was given and the psychological boost had been given to runners, records tumbled in quick succession. A new threshold had been set. The paradigm for the possible had been altered.

A little while ago I was selling my books at a market stall, and someone pointed to my latest. With a sneer and a sarcastic grin they said: “To be honest, ‘Portsmouth A Literary And Pictorial Tour’, must be very small. It’s the literary part. Surely any book with ‘Literary’ and ‘Portsmouth’ in the title is going to be super thin.”

Of course, I set this person right, telling her about Conan Doyle, Dickens, H G Wells, Kipling, Jane Austen, Wodehouse, C J Sansom, Jonathan Meades, William Cowper, Olivia Manning, Jean Rhys, Neil Gaiman and numerous other major authors who had either grown up here, or had something to say about the town. It surprised her, I think. And it changed her beliefs.

I say it to you, too, as writers who sometimes may doubt their abilities or their purpose: Portsmouth has already produced four of the greatest writers of the Victorian era, produced some of the greats of the 20th Century and (I am sure) is poised to do more with the 21st. You can be part of that future history, too.

We all deserve to feel good about where we’re from, and we deserve to draw inspiration from success stories to feed us on our own journey. So I thought, in case you didn’t know about it, that I would let you know that’s part of why I wrote my book.

Portsmouth, A Literary and Pictorial Tour celebrates this island city’s rich and diverse literary heritage, but more than that, it asks you to imagine that perhaps one day, you will be in future editions.

In fact, some of you already are in this one, alongside those famous greats, some of whom I’ve named above. So, as Christmas and the New Year come along, I wish for all of you to have the success you deserve in the coming years and months.

Merry Christmas all.

Why Conan Doyle’s Southsea Life Should Inspire Writers

Writers looking for reasons to keep going when times are tough, should look no further than Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life in Southsea. His story of struggle, finding his way and eventual success is one for every writer to learn from.

In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, Doyle talks about those early years after his arrival in Southsea.

I made £154 the first year, and £250 the second, rising slowly to £800, which in eight years I never passed, so far as the medical practice went. In the first year the Income Tax paper arrived and I filled it up to show that I was not liable. They returned the paper with “Most unsatisfactory” scrawled across it. I wrote “I entirely agree” under the words, and returned it once more. For this little bit of cheek I was had up before the assessors, and duly appeared with my ledger under my arm. They could make nothing, however, out of me or my ledger, and we parted with mutual laughter and compliments.”

So, what changed? Doyle confesses that he never imagined he’d be able to make a living from writing. In the early days, he was so poor he had no staff at his surgery on Elm Grove and cooked bacon over the gas lamp in the back room. But, he adds:

In many ways my marriage marked a turning-point in my life. A bachelor, especially one who had been a wanderer like myself, drifts easily into Bohemian habits, and I was no exception… with the more regular life and the greater sense of responsibility, coupled with the natural development of brain-power, the literary side of me began slowly to spread until it was destined to push the other entirely aside.

Though Doyle did write before he married, he was paid an average of £4 per story and made around £10 or £15 a year from his work, which works out at between £1000 to £1500 a year.

A great insight into his creative life follows:

But though I was not putting out I was taking in. I still have notebooks full of all sorts of knowledge which I acquired during that time. It is a great mistake to start putting out cargo when you have hardly stowed any on board. My own slow methods and natural limitations made me escape this danger.

A Study In Scarlet in the famously rare 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual, of which only 11 complete copies are known to exist.

After he married, he wrote most of the stories that appeared in his book, The Captain of the Polestar. He progressed steadily, until he appeared in the prestigious Cornhill magazine, with his short story Habakuk Jephson’s Statement.

Doyle had to deal with hostile reviews and keep on, even then. One reviewer stated: “Cornhill opens its new number with a story which would have made Thackeray turn in his grave.”

Doyle was also willing to take on any writing job that came his way:

I was still in the days of very small things—so small that when a paper sent me a woodcut and offered me four guineas if I would write a story to correspond I was not too proud to accept. It was a very bad woodcut and I think that the story corresponded all right. I remember writing a New Zealand story, though why I should have written about a place of which I knew nothing I cannot imagine. Some New Zealand critic pointed out that I had given the exact bearings of the farm mentioned as 90 miles to the east or west of the town of Nelson, and that in that case it was situated 20 miles out on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. These little things will happen. There are times when accuracy is necessary and others where the idea is everything and the place quite immaterial.

Doyle’s next realisation about his writing is a useful one for any writer.

It was about a year after my marriage that I realized that I could go on doing short stories for ever and never make headway. What is necessary is that your name should be on the back of a volume. Only so do you assert your individuality, and get the full credit or discredit of your achievement.

His first venture was The Firm of Girdlestone, which he acknowledges as a “worthless book”. He adds:

When I sent it to publishers and they scorned it I quite acquiesced in their decision and finally let it settle, after its periodical flights to town, a dishevelled mass of manuscript at the back of a drawer.

Then came his inspiration for Sherlock Holmes:

Gaboriau had rather attracted me by the neat dovetailing of his plots, and Poe’s masterful detective, M. Dupin, had from boyhood been one of my heroes. But could I bring an addition of my own? I thought of my old teacher Joe Bell, of his eagle face, of his curious ways, of his eerie trick of spotting details. If he were a detective he would surely reduce this fascinating but unorganized business to something nearer to an exact science. I would try if I could get this effect. It was surely possible in real life, so why should I not make it plausible in fiction?

Doyle adds: “It is all very well to say that a man is clever, but the reader wants to see examples of it—such examples as Bell gave us every day in the wards…” Next came the choice of the name. something not too obvious for a clever man, such as Mr Sharps or Mr Ferrets, but something else.

First it was Sherringford Holmes; then it was Sherlock Holmes. He could not tell his own exploits, so he must have a commonplace comrade as a foil—an educated man of action who could both join in the exploits and narrate them. A drab, quiet name for this unostentatious man. Watson would do. And so I had my puppets and wrote my “Study in Scarlet.”

In fact, Doyle wrote the book over a period of 3 weeks in 1886. It was a novella rather than a novel – but he was rightly proud of his achievement.

For the writer, the question then, is how to deal with publishers who just don’t “get” your work? To push on and hope, appears to be the answer. And a matter of luck is always part of the equation, it seems:

I knew that the book was as good as I could make it, and I had high hopes. When “Girdlestone” used to come circling back with the precision of a homing pigeon, I was grieved but not surprised, for I acquiesced in the decision. But when my little Holmes book began also to do the circular tour I was hurt, for I knew that it deserved a better fate. James Payn applauded but found it both too short and too long, which was true enough. Arrowsmith received it in May, 1886, and returned it unread in July. Two or three others sniffed and turned away. Finally, as Ward, Lock & Co. made a speciality of cheap and often sensational literature, I sent it to them.

“Dear Sir,” they said,—”We have read your story and are pleased with it. We could not publish it this year as the market is flooded at present with cheap fiction, but if you do not object to its being held over till next year, we will give you £25 for the copyright.

“Yours faithfully,
“WARD, LOCK & Co.”
“Oct. 30, 1886.”

The story famously appeared in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887. Doyle never received another penny for it.

Doyle did not wait for publication the next year, but wrote a historical romance, Micah Clarke. For which pains, he was asked by publishers how he could waste his wits and time writing historical novels. Other comments from publishers were in a similar vein.

I was on the point of putting the worn manuscript into hospital with its mangled brother “Girdle-stone” when as a last resource I sent it to Longmans, whose reader, Andrew Lang, liked it and advised its acceptance. It was to “Andrew of the brindled hair,” as Stevenson called him, that I owe my first real opening, and I have never forgotten it. The book duly appeared in February, 1889, and though it was not a boom book it had extraordinarily good reviews, including one special one all to itself by Mr. Protheroe in the “Nineteenth Century,” and it has sold without intermission from that day to this. It was the first solid corner-stone laid for some sort of literary reputation.

As for Sherlock Holmes, British literature was fashionable in the United States at the time, and it was a Mr Stoddart, an American agent for Lippincott’s who asked to meet up with him in London in 1889. He thus had dinner with Stoddart and Oscar Wilde, the latter of whom had read Micah Clarke, and liked it very much.

The result of the evening was that both Wilde and I promised to write books for “Lippincott’s Magazine”—Wilde’s contribution was “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” a book which is surely upon a high moral plane, while I wrote “The Sign of Four,” in which Holmes made his second appearance.

Doyle now went on to write The White Company, feeling once again the urge to write historical romance. When he finished, he writes:

I felt a wave of exultation and with a cry of “That’s done it!” I hurled my inky pen across the room, where it left a black smudge upon the duck’s-egg wall-paper. I knew in my heart that the book would live and that it would illuminate our national traditions. Now that it has passed through fifty editions I suppose I may say with all modesty that my forecast has proved to be correct.

He goes on:

This was the last book which I wrote in my days of doctoring at Southsea, and marks an epoch in my life, so I can now hark back to some other phases of my last years at Bush Villa before I broke away into a new existence. I will only add that “The White Company” was accepted by “Cornhill,” in spite of James Payn’s opinion of historical novels, and that I fulfilled another ambition by having a serial in that famous magazine.

These remembrances should act as inspirations for writers in Portsmouth, and indeed, everywhere. It’s one reason I decided to celebrate him and his greatest creation Sherlock Holmes by bringing out a facsimile reprint of the first appearance of A Study In Scarlet through my publishing company, Life Is Amazing. The truth is, the most famous writers come from somewhere. One of those places could be where you are right now. In fact, one of those writers could be you.

[NB: This article was updated on 12th February 2019]

The Death of a Bookshop – Blackwell’s Portsmouth

Sadly, after much imploring, petitioning and dissent among university and townsfolk alike, today sees the closure of Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth.

The shop has been the most extraordinary hub, with writers launching numerous books here, academics and townsfolk alike mingling and sharing ideas, students supported and helped by an extremely dedicated staff and numerous authors coming to give talks about their work. It has been a place of meetings and information exchange, and an increasingly rare thing: an informal face-to-face meeting place where ideas can form and grow in discussion, where friendships and projects have begun. It has seen readings, art, music – and has been one of the major hubs of culture in the town for a fiercely loyal and surprisingly large group.

When I first heard that it was threatened with closure, I started a petition on 38 Degrees imploring the University of Portsmouth and Blackwell UK to think again. It got over a thousand signatures in one weekend. This bookshop was not only loved. It was needed.

As a casualty of the changing nature of information, the closure of Blackwell’s Portsmouth can be regarded in one light as a natural, even inevitable development. But it also shows a lack of understanding and imagination about how to really make it work. Its closure also reflects a wider matter: the disregard of large corporate entities for local communities. Bizarrely, the University has chosen to ignore the value it added to its own reputation and the service it provides its students in its headlong rush to milk money from the site in a more lucrative way. That will be to the University’s lasting shame.

So what really drove the closure of the bookshop?

The reality is that the idea of university died a death in Britain a generation ago. At least, the sort of institution I took my degree at in the early 1990s died a death. Even then, the idea of university was in the process of change, but there was still, in the slightly rarefied atmosphere of the philosophy department at York University where I studied, a sense that a subject had a value beyond its retail price conceived as a commodity. Back then, universities were, in fact, concerned with a wider issue – primarily, western culture, and also, with cultures more generally.

But the idea of the university as the custodian of culture is defunct. And, if you are of the mind that art and culture are byproducts of a successful economy, then you will take the accountant’s view that Blackwell’s University Bookshop’s passing is the natural function of economic Darwinism.

If, however, you place a value on culture beyond that of numbers in a bank account, then the demise of Blackwell’s is a belated weathercock for the way the wind has been blowing for the last thirty years.

Why, then, does this closure matter so much to me? Besides the personal support and purpose I found in the shop, it also strikes me that the closure of a bookshop in a town with high levels of illiteracy is the wrong way to go. Now, only one retail bookshop is left in a city of 200,000 souls, and that is a generalist shop on Commercial Road that piles them high and sells the bestsellers cheap. That is one reason.

But I am also struck by an irony. Thanks to the work of John Pounds, a figure from the 1830s now largely forgotten, the right to a free education in Britain was born in Portsmouth. Pounds believed that education is for everyone, including the poorest – and especially those who could not pay for it. That was a noble cause which eventually spread to the offering of education grants for all who made the grade, so they too could enjoy an elite education no matter what their personal finances. But, the decision to remove degree level grants has enslaved a whole generation with massive debt; the result is that the inevitable logic of economics has led to education being at the vanguard of cultural decline. From a social good, education and culture have been demoted to, simply, goods.

It used to be the case that education and culture were regarded as something more broadly useful to society than being retailed as employability skills, important though they are. It was held that the very nature of what it is to be human could be broadened and made richer through an education that transmitted the values inherent to an enlightened culture, those of understanding others, of creative endeavour, of articulate questioning and challenging of orthodoxy. That used to be the role of the university. There was also a general belief that having people educated in this broader sense spread out as a good to society generally. This belief made the criteria for political and social decisions include aspects of life other than those dictated by basic economics. This view of education was the symptom of a holistic view of society and culture.

Now, however, pure right wing economics are our master.

Some will argue that art and culture are byproducts of civilization – that our ancient forebears in the spare time between hunter-gathering needed something to do with their lives and so created art to while away their hours. Those people imagine that our ancestors, like us, came back from a hard day’s hunting in the savannah, and in the absence of a flatscreen television amused themselves by gawping at the Lascaux cave paintings – square-eyeing away the winter evenings for 20,000 years until their successors could eventually come up with Netflix.

This reductionist view of culture sees art and artistic endeavour as non-essential. It is the epiphenomenon of commerce. Artists and writers and poets and creators exist because they are supported by the real activity of life, which is all hard facts, and especially hard coin.

It is not a view I share. To me, it has become obvious that looking at the general degradation of culture over the last thirty years being spearheaded by universities such as the one in Portsmouth, we are slowly going backward. We are devolving.

There’s no doubt that hunting and gathering enabled early humans to work in co-operative hunting groups; that it led to a particular type of social cohesion in the form of tribes; that it led to the necessity of building an understanding of the world around them – nor that all these are the foundations of modern life. No doubt, all these social behaviours are products of the activity that provided ancient humans with food and fire and safety – activities that would later be labelled economic.

But the ability to progress did not come from the act of hunting alone. Before the act of hunting in groups, someone had the idea that humans could work together, could find a way to trap an animal, could find food by hunting in packs. Every advance in human life is the result of an act of imagination, every advance comes from the visualisation and the discussion of ideas and possibilities. Yes, it is true that groups of creatures other than humans hunt in unison and do not paint cave walls or discuss Sartre over coffee, but none of those animals has the imagination to shape a flint or attach it to a spear, nor possess all the fine gradations and nuances in thinking and language that humans have, that have led to our rise over millennia. Ideas were born and passed from one generation to the next by culture and the spaces in which culture is transmitted, be they caves, temples – or bookshops.

That is why the sacred spaces of ancient cultures are covered in paintings, spells and words. That is why ancient civilizations such as the Babylonians sculpted creatures that were impossible in the real world, but which stepped straight from the imagination. It was not simple superstition expressed in the statues of ancient gods, it was not that artists and thinkers created fancies while the real business of the world continued on despite them. Statues of ancient Gods and the rituals that surrounded them were central to the running of society, to civilization’s understanding of the world that was disseminated through temple rituals. Culture and the transmission of culture is humanity at its greatest. It has precedence over narrow economics.

And so we come to Blackwell’s University Bookshop, Portsmouth, and its closure.

There are arguments that the days of the book are long past. That with the coming of digitization and with the ability of students to access material online, there is little need to produce books. Indeed, books are a terrible waste of resources, and the world is a greener place without all that woodpulp being converted. Think of the environment, we are enjoined. Think of the planet.

But this is to miss the point of the rituals that occurred in this bookshop. Book launches, author talks, informal seminars, discussions, sharing, recommendations are more than stock-in-trade. Bookshops are not only purveyors of books, at least the good ones like Blackwell’s in Portsmouth, aren’t. That good will could have been monetised, but the University wanted the site of the bookshop for another project.

A British university didn’t see the value in keeping its only functioning bookshop open. Let that thought sink in a while. Because it really is as simple as that.

Portsmouth’s Blackwell’s was a space where ideas could be disseminated, beyond the economics-driven imperative of university finances. It drew people to it that were not connected to the university, and they met with students and lecturers and ideas were shared. Culture happened – spontaneously. Blackwell’s, Portsmouth, was, in fact, a means of the transmission of culture just as the sacred spaces once were to our forebears. It was in its modest, modern way, a temple to civilization.

Blackwell’s wasn’t only about commerce. It was about humanity in a wider sense. It was about standing up to the cost-benefit analysis view of life and saying “what we do, what we think, is vital because it is human, despite you” in the face of the machinery of bean-counting that pays lip service to such ideas, but sacrifices culture and ideas to its own calculating god, Mammon.

My call, now, is that in its passing, we continue the rites enacted at Blackwell’s Portsmouth, and work to preserve culture. That we do so, despite the decisions of businesses like Blackwell UK, and the value-free institution that is the University of Portsmouth.

Writing Edward King – the performances, 27th May 2017

Image courtesy of (c) Portsmouth Museum

Some time ago I volunteered to write a short story about local artist Edward King, who for the last 26 years of his life was a patient at St James’s Lunatic Asylum on Locksway Road, Milton.

It was part of a project run by Annie Kirby-Singh that has incorporated workshops, the publication of an Edward King website www.writingedwardking.com containing the contributions by writers and examples of his work.

His story is a fascinating one. Extolled by Van Gogh for his power and virility in his drawing, he was a member of the New English Art Club alongside Sickert, Singer Sergent, Nash and Augustus John. Yet after the death of his wife in 1924 and a prolonged breakdown, he ended the last years of his life at James’s. In his later years, he took to painting again, producing pictures of Milton Locks, and a series of paintings of the city after air raids during the Portsmouth Blitz.

14 writers produced stories inspired by his works, and I was lucky enough to be at one of a series of four performances that took place in the Minghella Studio of the New Theatre Royal on the 27th May 2017.

One of the things that constantly rocks me on my heels is the extraordinary level of writing talent in this relatively small town. The 90 minute show of which I was a part had works by local writers Christine Lawrence, me, Jacqui Pack, Charlotte Comley, Bernie Byers, Zella Compton and William Sutton. By the end of the session, after hearing stories and songs by these extraordinary writers I felt genuinely humbled.

From Christine’s dark tale of madness, through Jacqui’s account of depression, Charlotte’s story of Nora coming to terms with a troubled childhood, Bernie’s analysis of a painting of the laundry, through Zella’s viscerally real account of an air raid to William’s songs, both moving and funny, the session was a complete moment of exploration and discovery.

You may have missed the live session – but the stories are online for you to enjoy at The Writing Edward King website (link above). There is much there to enjoy… so… enjoy!

Review – Cirque de Glace, “Evolution”, King’s Theatre, Southsea, 8th May 2017

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for the circus, so when I saw Cirque de Glace were performing at the King’s Theatre, I couldn’t resist going. I LOVE CIRCUSES, and this was one with a difference. The whole thing was a circus on ice, with a real refrigerated floor for the performers to skate around on! How would they do it? I wondered, how would the circus motif be transformed with this added frisson, or freeze-on, of a potential slip-up at any moment?

From the start, I knew things were going to be different. Taking our seats, the theatre was already filled with theatrical smoke. The show started with lights across the audience and ponderous music. The scene was set. We were at the start of the universe itself, and stars were being formed, the booming narrative informed us. Planets coalesced, the rock that would become the Earth was struck by a gigantic meteorite, splitting the proto-planet into Earth and moon and suddenly – boom! crash! – we were in the world of the volcanoes, billions of years ago…

Next, the skaters appeared, making a circle around a rather small volcano in the middle of the stage and skated around it. The music boomed, the voice continued talking about magma and rocks and the formation of the planet and… I started to lose my focus.

There was some great skating, but the first 15 minutes of the show felt like an extended geography lesson for children with Attention Deficit Disorder. I think I was meant to feel a sense of awe and wonder, but actually, being told that rocks formed and that somehow that had something to do with people skating around the stage… I’ve got to say it didn’t quite hit the spot. It was Geology On Ice.

Nevertheless, I persevered. Perhaps a narrative would evolve that would hold my attention. Sure enough, next came the creation of the sea, then insects, and Gaia doing acrobatics on an earth-shaped ball. Everything the performers did was brilliant technically, and I marvelled at the aerial silk performers dangling from the Fly Loft… except that the smoke I’d mentioned earlier hadn’t cleared away, and with lights directed straight at the audience, it was actually quite difficult to see what they were doing. The special effects distracted, until the performance got lost in smoke and lighting.

The skaters were brilliant, but something about the concept of the show didn’t quite work. The booming recorded voice of the narrator at times took on a tone half way between environmental activist and children’s poet – and when the narration descended into terrible doggerel, it introduced a new level of struggle for my tiny brain, that had to decipher what was going on, as well as fight the blinding lighting and deafening, meaningless words.

At the same time, the performers didn’t seem to understand the grammar of applause. The action flowed from one scenario to another, not giving the audience the right cues to clap. I was waiting for that breathing space to show my appreciation for the extraordinary feats I was viewing, but there was no room to allow it. Sitting just a few seats away, a member of the crew tried to encourage clapping by doing so loudly herself. That worked for the first two or three times – but people just wanted to watch. The clapper seemed not to understand that applause should come at the release of dramatic tension. The simplest way to do that in trad circuses is to do a drum roll, have the performer do their trick, then stand with arms outstretched. Bang! There’s your cue to clap.

No such cues were given to the audience. The planted clapper distractingly picked the wrong moments to clap, pulling the audience’s appreciation too early, so that when the right moment came to clap there was silence because they were already “clapped out”.

I so wanted to really enjoy this show. Don’t get me wrong, I did think it was good. But watching the story of the world unfold, with trees being chopped down by men with chainsaws, and then the voice track telling us that we were reaping the whirlwind of our own destruction, it all felt that we were being hectored and accused for the faults and greed of people we can’t control. That the refrigerated floor must use up a hefty dose of carbon emissions was an irony not missed on me. The performers were brilliant. The production, like the clapper, was just a tad heavy handed. 6/10.

Yoga and Sherlock Holmes – a brace of Pompey events

Two very different cultural events occurred in Portsmouth yesterday, that I was lucky enough to attend.

The first was the limb-stretching Yoga for Writers, a workshop run by writer and Yoga teacher Helen Salsbury. A good hour and a half long, the workshop addressed the particular issues met by writers who spend too long at their desks and don’t take breaks. The stretches and exercises dealt with a number of issues: posture, ergonomics, stiffness of joints due to too much inactivity and glassy-eyed staring into the distance. For anyone who forgets to take a break and loosen up the body, Helen’s soothing lesson is a recommend. Another part of the training – and let’s face it, yoga is all about breath control and meditation, was how to just chillax. Entering different states of consciousness is the heart of the writer’s job. And with her hypnotic talk and relaxation exercises, the spaced out feeling of deep chilledness at which the doorway to creativity so often opens for many writers was a welcome reminder of the power of doing nothing. I walked away from this one feeling lighter and more focused. You can find out more about Helen Salsbury here: http://www.helensalsbury.com/

Another cultural event was the final instalment of The Sign of Six – a deeply joyous homage to one of Portsmouth’s great literary heroes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the character who is so famous I am sure he is even recognised in far-flung galaxies across the universe, Sherlock Holmes (and of course, his bosom buddy Doctor Watson!).

The Sign of Six was a series of six short plays performed at different venues across the city throughout the week. From Paulsgrove, to Southsea, Holmes and Watson were on the track of a deadly assassin who variously tried to bomb, gas, mine, poison and generally polish off the super-sleuth owner of the deerstalker. Each of the six venues yielded a clue to the identity of the would-be killer – until finally it was revealed that the man trying to kill off Holmes was none other than Conan Doyle himself.

The team behind the plays was Periplum, whom I went for drinks with after the final show, in Southsea. Dan, the villain of the piece described how working with the public in Pompey had its challenges – like being pushed in the Commercial Road fountain or dealing with people questioning them mid-rehearsal as to what they were doing. Yet, this was all part of the excitement of the live performance, and it worked out really well. A suitable street theatre compliment to one-time denizen of Portsmouth, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each play was broadcast on Facebook Live, the verve and fun with which this whole project was performed can be still be viewed, here: https://www.facebook.com/conandoylescasebook

There’s always something happening in Portsmouth!

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.

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.

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.