Book Review – Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy

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I write this review as a huge – and hugely disappointed – fan of the original Bridget Jones books and films. Do not proceed if you don’t want to read any spoilers.

Having just finished reading this book, I am unable to see any reason why Helen Fielding would have chosen to resurrect Bridget other than a desire to make further money from what had been a much-loved character. She should have left her well alone.

When we last saw Bridget, she was in her early thirties and happily setting off into the sunset with Mr Right, the wonderful Mark Darcy. Readers and film-viewers alike are invited to imagine that the couple lived happily ever after – the perfect ending and one that brought the two books to a pleasing conclusion.

Now, I’m no fantasist, and I know as well as anyone that there is no such thing as a fairytale “happily ever after” in real life. But in books and films, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be.

Fast-forward to Mad About the Boy, and we find – to our horror – that Mark Darcy is no more. He’s been blown up by a landmine in the course of his human rights lawyering in Syria or somewhere like that, and Bridget is now a widow, aged 51 and with two very young children. By my calculations that means that she must have had the children improbably late, in her late forties, but this is never explained. She’s now living in a nice house with all financial worries taken care of by her late husband, meaning that she’s free to spend lots of time obsessing over men once more and also dither around writing a screenplay, a modern retelling of a play that she doesn’t even know how to spell the name of or who the playwright is.

I can’t go any further without commenting that killing off Mark Darcy seems a crass plot twist, employed just to be able to put Bridget in the situation of being single again. It’s contrived, and it seems to indicate a complete lack of respect on the part of the author to her fans.

Even worse, and even more contrived, is the fact that Daniel Cleaver is still on the scene. Having magically been forgiven by Mark after his marriage to Bridget, and the two former rivals then becoming best friends, Daniel is the children’s godfather and enjoys an easy-going friendship with Bridget, who’s happy to leave her kids with him despite the fact that he ends up in rehab towards the end of the book. This was implausible, I thought; Cleaver, though undoubtedly an engaging and entertaining character, treated Bridget like crap throughout both the original books, and having had a similar figure in my life years ago, I can certainly say that I wouldn’t speak to the git again, let alone entrust my theoretical children to him.

Bridget’s situation in life is now so far removed from the original Bridget books that I felt it was now irrelevant to me. The book was completely dominated by boring scenes of kids and motherhood, not of any interest to me whatsoever, and the love interest that occupied most of the book was a stereotypical ‘toy boy’ character called “Roxster”, with whom Bridget seemed mostly to have utterly infantile and unfunny conversations about farts and vomit. Pathetic.

While in the original books Bridget only had the phone to worry about, she now has to contend with the multiple channels of modern communication – texting, email, Twitter etc. Many pages of the book are wasted with her unfunny attempts to get to grips with Twitter, which just seemed a contrived effort to try and bring Bridget into the present decade. Much of the charm of the original books was lost as a result, and the updating of the character was an abysmal failure.

I found the book predictable, mostly badly written and always unconvincing, a dreadful attempt to get some extra mileage from what had been a delightful character and a deeply unsatisfying follow-up to the supposed happy ending that brought The Edge of Reason to such a satisfying conclusion.

There’s another happy ending at the end of this one, with Bridget ditching the toy boy and shacking up with her kids’ school teacher, an ex-SAS guy who conveniently happens to have a massive country house (I know, completely implausible). But now that we know that we can’t trust Helen Fielding’s happy endings, one can only assume that we can expect another book at some point in which Mr Wallaker has been run over by a bus and Bridget’s on her own again, obsessing about some other ill-conceived guy who isn’t a patch on Mark Darcy.

1/5 stars.

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Book review: Lost London, 1870-1945

I’ve had my eye on this weighty volume from English Heritage for a long time, and was delighted to find it on sale in Blackwell’s for £20 reduced from £30 (it’s also available on Amazon for the same price). Having seized this excellent bargain, I can honestly say that I have enjoyed every last fascinating page.

Lost London is a collection of incredible photos of London taken between 1870 and 1945, which all come from an archive held by English Heritage. I actually collect old photographs myself, so the subject matter is naturally of interest to me, but this informative book also taught me an awful lot that I didn’t know about London in days gone by.

I had rather expected that the devastation of Second World War bombing would be the dominant theme of the book, but in fact only the last (comparatively short) chapter concentrated on that dark chapter in London’s history. The insight these photos give into what London was like during the war is truly eye-opening and horrifying. Though many of the photos in the collection from this period show churches, because these were deemed the most architecturally significant and therefore worth recording, the photos are a vivid reminder of the extent of the bomb damage: scarcely a building in the photos from this period has survived unscathed, and even those left standing have windows blown out. It’s a terrifying thought.

But the war wasn’t the only thing responsible for the destruction of vast numbers of London’s historic buildings: many were purposefully demolished long before the Luftwaffe struck, to make way for road widening and that sort of thing. Even after the war, buildings that could have been refurbished were knocked down to make way for new housing that would aim to eradicate the terrible poverty that had characterised large swathes of London for decades. These were the days before people were concerned about conservation, and a great many remarkable buildings surviving from as far back as before the Great Fire have been lost.

Many of the photos in Lost London depict buildings on the verge of demolition, their interiors stripped and awaiting their fate. As one might expect, some of the ill-fated buildings in these photographs were grand houses; with fortunes changing after the First World War and the subsequent decline of the traditional aristocratic lifestyle brought about by the blurring of class boundaries during the war, many stately homes were destined to be demolished. One picture in the book shows one such house with objects such as mirrors laid out along the centre of the room ready for auctioning off.

Other buildings, now lost, were of great historical interest; for instance the premises of Edgington & Co Ltd in Bermondsey, a local landmark for the mural over its entrance. Edgington’s was a supplier of tents, awnings and sails, and included among its illustrious portfolio the flags for HMS Victory and tents for David Livingstone and Scott’s Antarctic expedition. It was demolished in 1967. Such a pity. Another fascinating image shows an old coaching inn, now lost, once frequented by the likes of Dickens.

Lost London gives a good sense of how London used to look and provides fascinating glimpses into the past. For instance, I had no idea that weatherboarded buildings were so common, nor that buildings in narrow streets often had mirrors mounted off them to reflect light into rooms – an ingenious way of combatting the gloom of narrow alleyways. I’d never have imagined that some of the worst poverty in the city could be found in one of its wealthiest areas, Westminster, nor that astonishingly rural scenes could be found in London. These were the result of surviving buildings from smaller villages being swallowed up by relentless urban sprawl. Peckham was one such village, and one particularly interesting photograph shows a farmhouse that survived as a reminder of Peckham’s rural roots. That too was demolished, and how very different the scene is today.

It is the people as much as the buildings that contribute to the immense interest of these photographs, both those in which people are posing and those depicting people going about their everyday lives. In many cases the photographer has attracted a significant level of interest, and in addition to the groups of people posing for the camera, faces can be seen leaning out of windows watching what’s going on. It’s hard to believe how different life is a hundred years later, when everyone has a mobile phone and every mobile phone has a camera.

This collection of photographs is astonishingly atmospheric and in many cases deeply poignant. The one that stands out most in my mind shows three boys from the East End, a notorious hotspot of crime and poverty, two of whom are so poor that they are barefoot. This is the London that Dickens would have known, and such images bring his street urchins vividly to life. Images of such abject poverty are a stark reminder that while there is much that we might mourn the loss of in the way of historic buildings, the changes to London since these moments were captured have not all been for the worse.

The thing I love about Dickens is…

Today is what would have been the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, one of the finest authors ever to have graced the English language and a firm favourite of mine. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a few remarks on just some of the things I think are what make Dickens so great. I’ve read a couple of his novels in the last three months, so he was very much on my mind even before the explosion of Dickens-related offerings from the BBC over Christmas – in relation to which, I might add, I’ve decided to avoid watching any adaptations of Great Expectations, which I read before Christmas, since the original is just too perfect to be tampered with. The other novel I read recently was A Tale of Two Cities, which wasn’t quite in the same league, but it had a hard act to follow.

The thing that surprised me most when I read Dickens for the first time was the humour. I found it laugh-out-loud funny in places, being a sense of humour that appeals greatly to my own – and it’s surprisingly modern in its humour, too. Take this passage from Great Expectations, for example, in which the unfortunate Pip is enduring breakfast with the insufferable Mr Pumblechook:

I considered Mr Pumblechook wretched company … his conversation consisted of nothing but arithmetic. On my politely bidding him Good morning, he said, pompously, ‘Seven times nine, boy?’ And how should I be able to answer, dodged in that way, in a strange place, on an empty stomach! I was hungry, but before I had swallowed a morsel, he began a running sum that lasted all through the breakfast. ‘Seven? And four? And eight? And six? And two? And ten?’ And so on. And after each figure was disposed of, it was as much as I could do to get a bite or a sup, before the next came; while he sat at his ease guessing nothing, and eating bacon and hot roll, in (if I may be allowed the expression) a gorging and gormandising manner.

I enjoyed that passage (and subsequent references to Mr Pumblechook and his arithmetic) so much that I actually read it aloud to several of my friends so that they might share in my amusement. Few (if any) modern authors could rival that. I also greatly enjoyed the character of Wemmick and his father, variously referred to by Wemmick, and subsequently also by Pip, as “The Aged”, “Aged Parent” or “Aged P”. So funny, and just as amusing to the modern reader as to a Victorian audience. Dickens is known for his funny and improbable names (those in Bleak House are some of my favourite – Mr Tulkinghorn, Lord and Lady Dedlock, Mr Smallweed, Mr Krook), but there’s a lot more to his humour than that.

And there’s a lot more to his novels than their humour, too; Dickens’ greatness arguably lies in his ability to combine humorous and often slightly surreal characterisation with poignancy and astute observation of human nature (to say nothing of his gripping plots). Dickens is adept at showing his characters react to difficult moral dilemmas, and they do so in a realistic and believable way – Pip’s rise to fortune and his subsequent alienation of the good-natured Joe being a classic example. Reading Pip’s changing fortunes, we are forced to admit uncomfortable truths to ourselves – that, had we been in his situation, there’s a strong possibility that we might have responded and behaved in the same way.

Furthermore, Dickens can turn a character from someone who is a bit of a laughing stock to begin with, to someone who can make one’s heart ache with compassion – just look at Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities, who had me welling up by the end of the novel. Dickens clearly meant us to feel a great deal of empathy for Joe in Great Expectations, unjustly cast aside by Pip as he climbs the social ladder – someone who goes from being a role model for the young Pip, to someone he treats as an embarrassment and beneath him, until he comes full circle and loses his fortune, realises how abhorrent his behaviour has been, and goes home to Joe – who, for all his lack of money and social grace, has demonstrated by far the greater emotional intelligence and has remained loyal to the undeserving Pip.

My final point of the evening is that I consider it to be the mark of a brilliant author if they can strike a chord with me by shrewdly pointing out the universal truths of human life, leaving one with the feeling that life – and all its joys and tragedies – is a shared experience, that we all live through the same situations and the same emotions, that however much one feels the odd one out, there are others out there who wonder the same things, suffer the same embarrassments, ponder the same moral dilemmas. George Eliot, in my opinion, is the true master of this astute observation – but Dickens displays it a lot as well. I’ll leave you with another passage from Great Expectations, which expresses something we’ve probably all thought about at some time or another – how differently would things have turned out, had it not been for what happened that day when…?

That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But, it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.