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A Thousand Coloured Castles


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A Thousand Coloured Castles back

Gareth Brookes

Price: 
17.98

Page 45 Review by Stephen

"This really is unacceptable.
"They've barely gritted this road."

Will wonders never cease? They won't, not once, nor will Fred.

It's the neighbour's garden which gets his goat most.

"Unbelievable."
"It's just intolerable."
"Absolutely typical."
"Totally outrageous."

I'd be surprised if something wasn't beyond the pale.

A very British book full of singularly English gripes and recognisably regional obsessions, Raymond Briggs devotees will find much to adore. For Gareth Brookes has resurrected that era in the form of an elderly suburban couple in an equally insular environment: the husband in the front-room and back garden; the wife in the front-room and kitchen.

Fred is set in his ways, forever moaning about anything modern or fancy while oblivious to the wonders of nature while Myriam is quietly experiencing wonders galore, spectacle after unexpected spectacle, spawning in the street, bursting from bookcases or sprouting from electricity pylons: tendrils of green, floral growth blooming with a multitude of pink-and-white, yellow-stamen flowers; rifle-bearing soldiers with Elizabethan ruffled collars, step-ladders rising upside down from their khaki helmets; a procession of small girls dancing in bright blue blouses and red motorcycle helmets, climbing up stairs to float through the ceiling.

It's a far cry from custard, budgies and boiled eggs. Fred loves boiled eggs. After he's eaten one, it amuses him no end to up-end its empty shell in the egg cup and pretend that he hasn't even started it. Oh, he never gets tired of that!

"Myriam, what on earth is this?"
"It's curry."
"Curry? Have you gone stark raving mad?"
"I thought it would be nice."
"Nice? Myriam, we've never eaten curry. We don't eat curry."

Of course the proscriptive old duffer doesn't eat curry, but I do love the dictatorial "we".

On the other hand, Myriam didn't think it would be nice; she merely picked up the wrong tin in the supermarket by mistake. Her eyesight is failing, you see: a big, blurred blotch at the centre of her sight. Can this and her wild, hallucinatory private life be connected?

Immediately striking is Gareth's seemingly, almost wilfully perverse deployment of the bluntest of art instruments: that of wax crayon. But it's a brave move which pays off, for it's perfect for conveying imperfect, grainy vision, hallucinatory experiences and it adds to the sense of era. It's a contemporary era, obviously, but Fred and Miriam live in their own, long gone by.

For Miriam's nocturnal sorties, into the back garden with the aid of a torch, the spectral blue gutters between panels add an eerie, ethereal quality, apt for the proceedings when she is witness to her neighbour out in the unkempt garden which infuriates Fred so incessantly. There are an awful lot of small white crosses in the rough. And now that neighbour is digging another hole. Or, you know, Myriam's imagining things.

I should mention that all faces are blank: again, it's all part of Miriam's inability to see properly or straight, and it's as disquieting and unbalancing as having imperfect vision or an ear infection.

But Miriam's true isolation will begin when her family begin to suspect she's gone barmy and she's ganged up on both by Fred and their daughter Claire, worried that her mother will have to go into a home. Not worried because "Poor Mum", but because nursing homes are expensive so bang goes her inheritance.

Which is nice.

Coming back to the comedy before I really hit you where it hurts, Fred's absent-minded sing-songs while clipping the hedge or mowing the lawn are hilarious. He never gets anything quite right: he even comes a cropper when dunking biscuits into tea (more Britishness for you there). Here he mis-croons to the Brotherhood of Man, another perfectly judged 'period' reference:

"Kissing for you, keep all my kissings for you,
"Ba ba baby, ba blah.
"I think I felt a drop of rain."

He's no longer the solicitous optimist he once was in his youth, dreaming of starting a vegetable garden and planting a cherry tree in order to treat Myriam to fresh cherries in bed. This reverie is catalysed by a box of photos, one of which shows the couple side by side in deckchairs out in the wide world, on a cliff top looking out over the sea and indeed their future life together.

It doesn't last long.

"I think I felt a drop of rain.
"Oh well, nice day down the drain."

Fred's constant "down the drain" refrain is funny to begin with, but decreasingly so, for Brookes' initially quaint and quirky tail comes with many a sharp edge to it. With real empathy and understanding Brookes evokes the bewilderment, frailty and potential helplessness of being lost or alone in old age, with prospects diminishing rapidly.

It reminds me of Paul Scott's prose masterpiece 'Staying On' (which featured an elderly couple similarly at odds but trying to get by), never more so than in this halting moment, mid-book:

"I'm losing my mind...
"And now I'm losing my sight.
"Who will look after Fred?
"Who will look after me?"

Notice she worries about Fred first.

"Myriam, what are you doing? Come inside now, it's getting dark."

The late-evening shadows loom large on the lawn, Fred's speech balloons capturing his wife in a pincher movement, while Myriam, isolated in her own tiny panel, is left staring into an unknowable future, surrounded by a chasm of black.

"I know."

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