Sunday, 2 December 2012

Dickens and the Time Lords

I find myself thinking of a good plot as a kind of TARDIS. Partly because it’s a vehicle for time travel, but mainly because the inside is bigger than the outside. There’s no mystery about how to get in – the doorway’s staring you in the face – but it leads to something unexpectedly capacious.

Five people on a daytrip to Margate to scatter a dead friend’s ashes in the sea. That’s the neat exterior of Graham Swift’s Last Orders. You can walk all round it and take in its scope at a glance. But open the door and you get all these entangled life stories, decades of love and conflict and betrayal. Time travel is crucial in this case, but just as important is the capacity of the plot to open up and lead you in many directions without just sprawling shapelessly.

I realise this TARDIS image might have a potency for me that not everyone can relate to. I can’t say where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I know that the following evening I was glued to the first ever episode of Dr Who. I think it was mainly exposition – no Daleks – but something gripped the childish imagination. Two schoolteachers follow one of their students home, a strange girl who is causing them concern, and they watch her walk onto a piece of waste ground and slip inside a police box. I remember their amazement when they followed her through the door and saw the style in which she and the Doctor were living (the white-haired William Hartnell, of course, before Who went hip).

I was hooked for a year or two. Then I probably just grew out of it. But I may have sensed that the plot was destined to be a sprawling mess because it lacked the most basic element, which is an ending. You can wander limitlessly inside, but there’s no outside to contain the journey.

I've just seen the new film of Great Expectations. I particularly enjoyed the young gentlemen Pip mingles with when he comes into his money. Those drunken dinners with the Finches of the Grove reminded me of the Bullingdon Club where I used to hang out with Dave and Boris in my student days (not actually). Dickens’ plot, necessarily stripped of peripheral material, shines through. The twists, revelations and reversals that punctuate Pip’s life provide the containing structure. What opens up inside is the whole of society from its wealthiest heirs to its most abject criminals and the secret networks of personal relationships, financial interests, and moral responsibilities that bind them together.  


  1. Excuse me for going off at a tangent, but I was reminded of Doctor Who again this week, when reading about the publication of Ban This Filth! Letters from the Mary Whitehouse Archive. Apparently Doctor Who was one of her targets, because it relied on such things as "strangulation – by hand, by claw, by obscene vegetable matter". Her errors are part of the story (the sculptor Claes Oldenburg did not compare something to "my balls" but to "my ball", a work of his that consisted of a marble sphere on top of a column; Dennis Potter's mother was not guilty of "warping his mind through her wanton promiscuity" because The Singing Detective is a work of dramatic fiction; and so on.)

    Which is all beside the point. I like your tardis image, with its implications of travel in both time and space and its suggestion that somehow the whole thing can be contained.

    1. I had no idea Mary Whitehouse had a problem with Dr Who. I think her campaign was somewhat lacking in focus. I read a review of the letters (and not in the Mail or the Telegraph) suggesting that she was right all along, and we should have paid more attention, but I'm still not convinced. (More on moral decline in another posting perhaps).