Stephen Fry and Alan Moore: They Got Rhythm

Recently re-reading Stephen Fry’s autobiography, Moab is My Washpot, (I’m in a memoir mood following Oliver Postgate’s Seeing Things — I’m now reading Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater), I found myself thinking that, at its most florid, Stephen Fry’s prose style has certain similarities to Alan Moore’s.

Moab is My Washpot by Stephen Fry

They come from opposite ends of the social spectrum, of course. Moore was born and raised in Northampton’s poorest area; Fry went (mostly) through the public school system. But this sort of contrast only makes the similarities between the two all the more interesting. Apart from a few superficials (both are tall men, both have been described as “National Treasures”), the main similarity, to me, is in the character of their writing and their all-welcoming generosity of spirit. Both have a gourmet’s love of language, gleefully discarding traditional ideas of writerly propriety, such as brevity or concision, for the uninhibited joys of wordplay. Both use the full resources of their (large) vocabularies, swooping effortlessly from the literary to the archaic, the scientific, and the crudest Anglo Saxon, with perfect poise. Both use long, complex sentences but are never unreadable. In fact, these things add to the life, the vigour, and therefore the readability, of their prose. As writers, both have that Chaucerian/Shakespearean ability to include all aspects and levels of life in their writing, from the low physical to the high spiritual, from art as Art to art as entertainment, and from life as poor comedy to life as high tragedy.

So, having formed my theory, I tried to find some corroborative evidence. Here, for instance is Alan Moore, from the start of what I think of as one of his best pieces of non-fiction prose, a review of the works of occultist Kenneth Grant, published as “Beyond Our Ken” in Kaos magazine issue 14 (which can be downloaded here):

As fascinating and ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress, what shall we make of Kenneth Grant? I know few occultists without at least a passing interest in his work, and I know fewer still who would profess to have the first idea what he is on about. What he is on. To open any Grant text following his relatively lucid Magical Revival is to plunge into an information soup, an overwhelming and hallucinatory bouillon of arcane fact, mystic speculation and apparent outright fantasy, as appetising (and as structured) as a dish of Gumbo. The delicious esoteric fragments tumble past in an incessant boil of prose, each morsel having the authentic taste of magic…

I know the sound of both Moore’s and Fry’s speaking voices (which is certainly something that helps them come alive in my mind as I read them), so I tried reading a few of the more characteristic passages of Stephen Fry in the voice of Alan Moore. This, for instance, is Fry in full flight:

For the English the words healthy and hale, at their best, used to carry the full-belief weight of florid good cheer, cakes and ale, halidom and festive Falstaffian winter wassail. By the end of the seventeenth century, the hale health of pagan holiday was expelled from the feasting-hall along with Falstaff and Sir Toby Belch by the sombre holy day piety and po-faced puritanism of Malvolio, Milton and Prynne. “Health!” became no longer a bumping boozer’s toast but a quality of the immortal soul. Health no longer went with heartiness, but with purity. (From Moab is My Washpot, by Stephen Fry, p. 156)

Read as Alan Moore, it’s completely wrong. And the vice is as true of the versa. Moore’s prose (after that “As fascinating and ultimately mystifying as a giant squid in a cocktail dress”, which I can imagine Stephen Fry saying) just doesn’t fit even Fry’s gorgeously eloquent audiobook-friendly voice.

What’s going on? What is this magic of words that the best, most characteristic writers have, which brand them indelibly as their own and no-one else’s? What is “style”, which is at once so uniquely characteristic yet so infinitely variable? How can a writer write so many sentences, each different, but each sounding undoubtedly like them?

Whenever I read people trying to analyse “voice”, or style (and I love reading the attempts), it usually breaks down with resort to a word like “rhythm” — the “rhythm” of a particular writer’s prose — which always annoys me as an answer, because it seems to be cheating by shifting gears from literary to musical terms of reference. And besides, it implies it’s just about the pattern of syllables in a writer’s sentences, when it’s obviously so much more.

But when I try to come up with my own answer, I can’t help but do the same shift in gear. “Music” is the best I can come up with — the music of the way a writer uses his or her words. Not just the rhythm, but the melody and the harmony and the counterpoint, the characteristic key changes, the riffs and runs, and everything else. It’s the particular brand of humour, the breadth of curiosity and interest, the way a writer relates to his or her readers, their ability to link disparate ideas, the way they say one thing while meaning another…

Writing contains so much. It’s amazing to think how a single stream of words, read one at a time, can create such rich, multi-layered music, such magic, and how every writer who takes up the task of putting a sentence together does so in a way that is characteristically branded as theirs and no-one else’s. And when a writer surrounds you with their world, their way of thinking and looking, of laughing and feeling, it really is magic. It’s the magic of looking at the same world you always knew, but through another person’s eyes, and seeing just how different — different yet the same — it looks.

Seeing Things by Oliver Postgate

cover to Seeing Things by Oliver PostgateIt’s been a while since I bought a book on impulse, but I came back from town last Sunday with Seeing Things: A Memoir by Oliver Postgate, partly because of the wonderful look & feel of the book itself. It’s a hardback, but it doesn’t have a dustjacket; the cover picture is printed directly onto the cloth, which as a result has a wonderful, and appropriately old-fashioned, canvas-like texture to it.

(As an aside, I hate dustjackets. They get in the way of reading, I worry about them tearing or getting scuffed, and the books often look better on the shelf without them, anyway. I actually used to take them off and throw them away (!) — which is what booksellers once did, or so I’ve heard, back when dustjackets were simply there to protect the book from wear in the shop — till I realised I was throwing away a good part of the book’s value, should I ever decide to sell it. Now I dutifully protect them in clear, non-sticky plastic, or store them away in a folder.)

Oliver Postgate is, of course, the man who, with Peter Firmin, created Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and other perennial favourites of children’s TV. But it was only in 2008, when he died, that I realised those programmes I’d loved watching while growing up were made by the same person. Back when I was actually watching them, I didn’t think about TV programmes being made at all, and if I had, I’d have found it bewildering that one person could make two different ones, let alone a whole slew of them. (In fact, Postgate & Firmin created twelve “worlds” altogether, as Postgate puts it.) But if I had thought about them being made, Postgate’s would be the method I’d have expected them to be made with. No large, white-floored studios with multiple technicians and a lot of high-tech equipment, just one man in a converted cowshed, using equipment he’d either invented himself or adapted for the purpose with plenty of odd-sized brass screws, strips of Mechano, and a liberal application of sticky-backed plastic.

Postgate’s memoir reveals him to be primarily an inventor, in whose world no problem is too small to be pondered for a practical solution, nor too big. So, he invents goggles with mini windscreen wipers for bikers (and wears them), and mechanical skeletons to fit inside knitted Clangers; or, in the 1980s, he invents a whole new way of thinking about nuclear weapons (they’re not weapons — you can’t use them to defend yourself or attack others, you can only use them to initiate mass suicide), which makes such simple sense, it’s a pity the anti-nuclear movement didn’t take it up and popularise it.

I couldn’t help but feel, while I was reading this book, that Postgate was the sort of creator we’re likely to see much less of nowadays. (Or at least find more rare & valuable when we do.) I remember, when we got our first home computer (a ZX Spectrum), feeling that this was a great leveller, that it gave the hobbyist as much power as any corporation — and for a while that was true, which was how you got such weird and wacky games as Manic Miner, created by weird and wacky individuals at home (and, quite often, after school). Nowadays, with games being a corporate industry on the same level as the movies, you’ll never have that again. Postgate seemed to exist in a similar relationship to early TV. He got into the medium by building mechanical props (“I hear you can make a collapsible soufflé?”), and then, when he had an idea for a story, simply went to the BBC, proposed the idea, and got taken on.

Thinking back on the programmes of his that I actually watched, the main thing I remember is the narration. Postgate’s voice was calm, friendly and understated, presenting the weird world of the Clangers, or the fact that Ivor the Engine had a baby dragon in his furnace, with exactly the sort of low-key authority required to make the fantasy believable. His, and Michael Hordern’s (who narrated Paddington Bear), are the two voices I remember most from my early TV watching. In his introduction to Seeing Things, Stephen Fry says, “During bouts of childhood theism, I always supposed that if God had a voice it would be that of Oliver Postgate”. While I’d certainly like to live in any world where God had the voice of Oliver Postgate, I think that if there is such a world, it isn’t this one. If anything, it’s the very unobtrusiveness, the un-God-likeness, of his voice — which has a storyteller’s authority, but nothing as oppressive as Divine Authority — that made it work so well. Far too companionable and human to be god-like, it was like a parent reading you a story, and was instantly not that of a stranger.

What became of Postgate and Firmin’s brand of children’s tellyfantasy? At some point, they were told that “impeccable American educational sociologists had established that in order to prevent a child switching channels (and thus transferring the rating to another channel), a programme had to have a hook (i.e., an incident sufficiently violent to re-attract the attention) every three and a half seconds. Our programmes did not have this characteristic and consequently, whatever other qualities they may or may not have had, they were not to be considered suitable for television transmission.”

But the thing that kept you watching Postgate’s films was the story first of all (surely hook enough), and the atmosphere, which certainly wasn’t one of loud, fast whizzbangs, but was quiet, understated, companionable whimsy. It wasn’t trying to be flash and impress you, it was just telling you a story, and that’s where its power lay. The style of TV described in the above quote sounds more like hypnotism than entertainment, and I can’t help lapsing into “things ain’t like they used to be” mode when I read it, because the simple reliance on storytelling — and, preferably, subtle storytelling, which engages the imagination and emotions instead of merely stimulating the relevant brain-centres — is something I miss even in adult TV nowadays, most of which I find unwatchable because of the constant (and frankly distracting) demands it makes, like a boorish show-off always trying to impress, rather than a genuinely interesting person who actually deserves your attention. Which may be why I tend to turn off altogether — switching channels just gets you the same sort of soup, served with a slightly different flavour. Thank heavens for BBC4, where they at least show some nice documentaries — including, recently, one about Oliver Postgate, funnily enough.