Friday, 8 July 2011

Alice Day

Come to my arms, my beamish readers, and listen well, for tomorrow (for reasons best known to itself, but probably involving the tourist season) Oxford celebrates Alice Day.

I shall be marking it by dressing up as Alice (I have the hair, it was inevitable) and handing out squishy and highly sugary cupcakes (I know this because I made them, I went a bit mad with the food dye too so they are wildly colourful) to children at the bookshop, but before I do that I wanted to take you on a magical mystery tour of the story behind Alice - because, little bats, it is a good'un.

Alice - the real Alice - and I actually grew up about 100 yards away from each other (give or take 100 years, but who's counting). Her father was Dean of Christ Church, and my father was Master of Pembroke (a much smaller and less impressive breed of animal, as colleges go, but nevertheless just across the road), so we both spent a lot of time playing by the river in Christ Church Meadow, and we both had our sleep patterns messed up by Tom Tower ringing 101 times at nine every night (I'm not making this up, this is the sort of impossibly mad and pointless tradition that could only be real in Oxford). But while I was generally left alone, free to hang off the top of Oxford city wall and throw bits of twig at passing tourists, poor Alice was constantly being pestered by a mad don who insisted on taking a lot of scantily-clad photos of her in her garden.

I'm not making that up either. Here is Alice Liddell, aged about seven, in a picture taken by Charles Lutwige Dodgson - which, of course, is the real name of Lewis Carroll. Whether he was actually a paedophile, or just very good at pretending to be one, is one of those things that Alice academics enjoy spending a lot of time arguing about, but at any rate Carroll is one of the long, long list of distinguished authors who would probably not pass a CRB check were one to be carried out today (See also Alighieri, Dante and Ruskin, John).

This definitely puts him on my own personal list of authors who were mad, but not in a good way (as distinct from authors who were mad in ways that I wish I had been there for, like Coleridge and the Mitfords). Working where I do, I have had a lot of experience of Oxford dons, and so I can say with reasonable certainty that he also smelt faintly odd and tended to get breakfast on his shirt and then forget about it. (This is, of course, very cruel to all the Oxford dons who are well-adjusted individuals. To all three of you, I apologise).

But despite all of that, I love the stuff that Lewis Carroll wrote. He's the absolute master of creating things that don't make any rational sense at all, but which your brain works out immediately. Jabberwocky, for example, has so few English words in it that it might as well be in another language, but all the same it's instantly understandable. Carroll's word games are just so beautifully clever, and funny about it too, that it absolutely makes sense that Alice has never gone out of fashion.

Oh, and in case you were wondering - that drawing from the beginning of my post is by Tove Jansson (she of Moomins fame). She illustrated the first-ever Finnish language translation of Alice, back in 1966, and for some odd reason it's taken someone until now to realise that they might make the English version sell rather well too. I think I nearly like them more than Tenniel, which is heresy but I can't help it. Here, at any rate, are a brace of Mock Turtles, to help you decide for yourself.

You're welcome.

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