Sunday, 20 November 2022

A load of old nonsense

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland "Why are you reading a children's story, Cabbie?" Well, I'll tell you. I've found yet another unopened book on my shelf, bought over 20 years ago in an airport shop; Jeff Noonan's Automated Alice. The Wikipedia page says it "tells of the character of Alice from Lewis Carroll's books in a future version of Manchester, England". I've never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, so research is my motive.

There can't be many who don't know the story. Disney's 1951 movie Alice in Wonderland introduced it to a wide audience, but I've never seen that either. If you're as ignorant as me then, here's a brief outline. On a day out by the river, a pre-teen girl called Alice is bored and sleepy, "when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her". She follows it and falls down a large rabbit-hole. At the bottom of the hole she spends a lot of time drinking liquids from bottles and eating items that alternately shrink her or make her grow. Eventually she finds a mushroom, and by nibbling small pieces of it she can control the distressing size-changes. About 40% into the story this allows her to use a key to open a door and finally enter Wonderland.

It's all nonsense of course, and when I was a kid, book-reading was either for education or for instilling morals. Hence I found the nonsense rather tedious until I reached the Mad Tea-Party (Chapter Seven). From here on, Carroll's imagination and word play makes the reading delightful. Take this conversation between the Hatter and Alice:
"I daresay you never spoke to Time!"
"Perhaps not," Alice cautiously replied: "but I know I have to beat time when I learn music."
"Ah! that accounts for it," said the Hatter. "He won't stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock.
Even better are the conversations with the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle about writing and arithmetic:
"Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with," the Mock Turtle replied; "and then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision."
And about footwear:
"I mean, what makes them so shiny?"
Alice looked down at them, and considered a little before she gave her answer. "They're done with blacking, I believe."
"Boots and shoes under the sea," the Gryphon went on in a deep voice, "are done with whiting. Now you know."
"And what are they made of?" Alice asked in a tone of great curiosity.
"Soles and eels, of course," the Gryphon replied rather impatiently: "any shrimp could have told you that.
Unfortunately I didn't really warm to Alice herself. She's annoying and precocious, one minute so timid she hardly dares speak, and the next, angry and forthright. The whole set up is unrealistic too, at least it is for someone whose ancestors were already working in factories when they were Alice's age, not having the good fortune to be born into the middle-class.

As for the style, well, it's a children's book, so don't expect the type of words and expressions wielded by Will Self. Curmudgeons might grumble at the childish nonsense. If so they shouldn't bother to read the Wikipedia page for Alice where there's an equal amount of guff spouted about the book's themes and meanings. It's a story written for children for goodness sake!

Being such an enormously successful book, its characters and poetry have entered into every day conversations. Take the other day. I was down the pub watching Wales versus Georgia (the Welsh sadly lost). A group of women slowly ambled past the window. The bloke sitting next to me put his pint down and said, "Will you walk a little faster?” said the porpoise to the snail", then corrected himself, "it's whiting not porpoise, isn't it?" Well, I knew exactly what he was talking about because I'd just finished reading Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

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