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Saturday, 30 April 2011

Pobby and Dingan

Pobby and Dignan

Realism is a bad word. In a sense everything is realistic. I see no line between the imaginary and the real. – Federico Fellini

Newspapers like The Guardian tend to print book reviews during the week a book is released so if you happen to publish something on a week when a few heavyweights have something new out then you’ve probably missed your window of opportunity. You can imagine then Ben Rice’s surprise when in January 2001, in the week when the literary press were reviewing Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, that the Guardian reviewer Robert McCrum chose to write a review of a novella, Pobby and Dingan, by a first time author, that was only available in hardback at the time and had been available since the previous September. In his article McCrum wrote:

Normally, of course, our rule is to look forwards not back, but this little book, the author's first, is so extraordinary, it must be the exception. – Robert McCrum, ‘The smell of the outback’, The Guardian, 14th January 2001

By the end of his review he’s comparing Rice’s debut to Carey’s and saying that “Ben Rice makes a strong claim to be a leader of the new generation of writers.” In 2003 Rice was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists' in which he found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of A L Kennedy, Dan Rhodes, Sarah Waters and Zadie Smith, which certainly adds weight to McCrum’s prediction. Sadly, so far anyway, there appears to be no sign of that happening because the only other things Rice has published as far as I can see are the short stories ‘Specks in the Sky’, which was included in the paperback of Pobby and Dingan which came out in June 2002, and ‘Look at Me, I’m Beautiful’ which appeared in Granta 81.

When you trawl through sites like Amazon, Goodreads and Library Things there are loads of positive reviews of this book by ordinary people and very few allocate it less than four or five stars. People talk about reading it over and over again, of buying multiple copies and handing them out to friends and relatives. Jill S of Powell's City of Books wrote this:

Rarely do I read a book and come away from it feeling like it was a truly magical experience. I may even dare to say that Pobby and Dingan is To Kill a Mockingbird-good — and trust me, this is not a parallel I draw lightly. Suitable for anyone who can read. – Staff Pick, Powell’s Books

Goodreads reviewer Ann Marie reports that it also seems this book is being taught at some of the Chicago Public Schools as a “sort of a replacement for To Kill a Mockingbird on reading lists, although not because of the subject, but because it's a new modern classic.” It was a Chicago Book Club book too.

So what’s this book about and why am I just hearing about it now?

Most dictionaries define ‘imaginary’ as “existing only in the imagination; unreal” and yet is it as simple as that? What’s real? There are millions of people out there who believe in a personal god, who believe that God is a person. None of them were born with that belief but one day, somewhere along the lines, something happened and God became real to them. There will be those who say that God still isn’t real but these individuals only believe him to be real and believing that something is real doesn’t make it real. It’s an old argument.

Kellyanne Pobby and Dingan are real. As far as Ashmol Williamson’s eight-year-old sister Kellyanne is concerned they’re real. Ashmol isn’t so sure. No, he’s sure. He’s sure they’re not real. And so when Kellyanne crawls into his bedroom, her face all puffy and pale and fuzzed-over, and says, “Ashmol, Pobby and Dingan are maybe-dead,” she gets no sympathy:

“Good,” I said. “Perhaps you’ll grow up now and stop being such a fruit loop.”

Tears started sliding down her face. But I wasn’t feeling any sympathy, and neither would you if you’d grown up with Pobby and Dingan.

“Pobby and Dingan aren’t dead,” I said, hiding my anger in a swig from my can of Mello Yello. “They never existed. Things that never existed can’t be dead. Right?”

Kellyanne glared at me through tears the way she did the time I slammed the door of the ute [utility vehicle] in Dingan’s face or the time I walked over to where Pobby was supposed to be sitting and punched the air and kicked the air in the head to show Kellyanne that Pobby was a figment of her imaginings.

So, typical big brother. The book doesn’t say how old Ashmol is but he’s not terribly older than his sister. Ashmol thinks he’s the only sane person in Lightning Ridge, the mining town in New South Wales that his family have moved to. His father has staked a claim and believes in the existence of opals there in much the same way as his daughter believes in the existence of her imaginary friends:

My dad would come back from the opal mines covered in dust, his beard like the back end of a dog that’s shat all over its tail. He would be saying: “Ashmol, I sensed it today! Tomorrow we’ll be on opal, son, and we’ll be bloody millionaires! I can feel those bewdies sitting there in the drives, staring back at me. Checking me out. Waiting.

It might seem a little hypocritical then for him to deride his daughter’s claims but he does: “Aw, sorry princess. Did I tread on your fairy-friends?” Her mother, a homesick pom, is more open-minded – on all counts. She tolerates her daughter’s quirks and her husband’s obsessions; if it wasn’t for her job in the local supermarket they’d probably starve. Her husband has, what Ashmol describes as, “strange eyes – blue and green with a flicker of gold in them.” The boy can read between the lines however when his mum describes them as, “Eyes like opals,” and then with a sigh, “only a little easier to find.” It has been a while since her husband has found anything.

The older, softer sort of folk in Lightning Ridge had sort of taken to Pobby and Dingan [though]. They had totally given up on throwing Kellyanne funny looks and teasing her about them. Now when she walked down Opal Street, some of the old-timers would stop and shout: “G-day, Kellyanne, g-day, Pobby, and how’s Miss Dingan doin’ today?” It made you want to be sick all over the place. Lightning Ridge was full of flaming crackpots as far as I could see. … [O]ne time Ernie Finch let Kellyanne enter Dingan in for the Opal Princess competition because Kellyanne had a cold. I’m not kidding. And the judges voted Dingan third place…

One day as they do things change. The kids’ dad starts to be a bit more respectful of Pobby and Dingan. Ashmol thinks he’s gone off his rocker. After a bit he decides that his dad who was not “a very subtle sort of bloke” was doing it to get back at his wife over something. Whatever his initial motivations he keeps it up:

When Dad left for the claim one morning he volunteered to take Pobby and Dingan with him to get some exercise while Kellyanne was at school. He was trying to separate her from them, I suppose, now I think about it. Kellyanne’s teachers, you see, had complained that she wasn’t concentrating in class and was always talking to herself and hugging the air.


“Don’t worry, princess!” he shouted. “I’ll look after them while you’re at school and make sure they don’t get up to no mischief. Won’t I, Pobby? Won’t I, Dingan?”

Later that day he returns home and an anxious Kellyanne wants to know where her friends are.

“Hi, princess! Relax now, darl. Pobby and Dingan’s right here sittin’ on the vouch next to Ashmol.”

Kellyanne looked over at the couch. “No, they’re not, Dad,” she said. “They hate Ashmol. Where are they really?”

“Oh no, that’s it,” said my dad, “I completely forgot. They’re out in the back yard watering the plants.”

Kellyanne ran outside. She came back looking pale. “Dad, you forgot all about Pobby and Dingan, didn’t you? You’ve lost them, haven’t you?”

“No, princess,” said my dad. “Calm down, sweetheart. They were in the ute with me when I came back.”

“I don’t believe you,” said Kellyanne, tears growing out of her eyes. “I want you to take me out to the claim to look for them right now.” That was my sister! She was mad as a cut snake

There is no consoling the little girl and so the father bundles the two kids in his ute and they head off to the mine.

Rex and daughter

And this is where things get messy. You see the guy who owned the claim next to Rex Williamson’ was Sid the Grouch:

Old Sid, who lived out there in a camp made out of pieces of corrugated iron, came running out from behind a weeping-wilga tree and stood by the starpicket at the corner of our claim with his arms folded. He had a big grey moustache, and he wore this kind of stupid beanie hat that made him look even meaner and stupider than he was. And believe me that was stupid. The rumour was he ate frill-neck lizards on toast for breakfast.

Old Sid watched as my dad got down on all fours and leant over the hole of Old Sid’s mine shaft and called out, “Pobby and Dingan! You down there?” Sid couldn’t make head or tail of what was going on. He thought my dad was ratting his claim and stealing his opal.

Ratting is “the same thing as murder in Lightning Ridge – only a bit worse.” The police are called and the kids’ dad end up in jail overnight. In the morning everyone knows what Old Sid believes happened. And just as Kellyanne believed her friends were real and really missing so the townsfolk believe that Rex Williamson really was a ratter and so, in their eyes, he became one.

Ashmol Needless to say Kellyanne did not find her friends at the mine. At this time the little girl falls ill. Jack the Quack is called and tells her mum that she’s suffering from a nervous illness or depression and if she continues to refuse food he’ll have to arrange for her to be taken to hospital. She doesn’t get better. Ashmol rises to the challenge though. He decides that the only way his sister would make a full recovery is when Pobby and Dingan are found.

But how do you go looking for imaginary friends? I stayed awake all the bastard-night trying to get my head around the problem. I reckoned that the first thing would be to have as many people as possible looking for them, or pretending to look, so that at least Kellyanne knew people cared, that they believed in her imaginary friends and wanted to help out.

And so he sets about the task with gusto and some success but Pobby and Dingan are nowhere to be found. Even though a number maintain they know where they are Kellyanne can always see through them. In the end she reconciles herself to the fact they must be dead and tasks her brother with the retrieval of their bodies.

So, no pressure.

There are some people in this world “who don’t know what it is to believe in something which is hard to see, or [how] to keep looking for something which is totally hard to find.” Ashmol thinks people like that are fruit loops.

opal dream Pobby and Dingan is a strange story, which resolutely refuses to follow a classic sentimental pattern. Because the narrator is a straight-talking young boy it’s hard not to think of him as an Aussie Holden Caulfield, especially considering how fond he is of his sister despite her quirks, but there’s also a world of difference between them; Holden is a cynic, Ashmol is not. The book has been filmed and the resultant film, renamed (unnecessarily IMHO) Opal Dream, is very much a family film but it also loses some of both its magic and its edginess in the translation; it plays safe and when I watched it I spent all my time pointing out where it deviated from the book not that it’s a bad film but the book is better. Critics of the book call it “saccharine” and I totally get where they’re coming from – they would probably group it with the writings of Mitch Albom – but the book is better than that.

There are plenty of young adults who would be able to read and get this book – it wears its heart on its sleeve a bit – but it was never marketed at a YA novel and I agree with that decision. Just because a book revolves around children does not make it a children’s book. The Catcher in the Rye is not a children’s book.

To a Brit like me Pobby and Dingan comes across as Australian through and through. One Amazon reviewer did make this observation however:

A pity an Australian editor hadn't intervened somewhere to eliminate the howlers such as an Aboriginal woman dancer playing the didgeridoo, or the persistent Americanisms (even though Rice is English), or at least fixing the misspellings of words such as galahs. All this spoils its authenticity, something the author is clearly straining for (and to many succeeding because it's already sold in a dozen countries).

I searched high and low for a review by an Australian journal but couldn’t find any. There were several of the film but that’s another thing entirely. One or two reviewers have questioned the authenticity of the lingo. The question though is: Is it more important that the language spoken in the book be realistic or believable? I would have to go with the latter. This is a small community and has its own idiolect.

The book is not perfect and although it has a lot going for it I’m just a little surprised that Granta would include Rice in its list of hopefuls based on it. It’s a hard book to dislike though. Yes, names like Jack the Quack are a bit groanworthy but he doesn’t overdo it. My one personal gripe was Ashmol’s getting James Bond’s name wrong – he calls him ‘Blond’ – I don’t care how old he is or in what backwater he’s grown up I simply can’t imagine him getting that wrong. Never finding out what was wrong with Kellyanne is a bit unsatisfying too but I’m sure the author kept it vague deliberately. What I did like what that it handled its theme of faith and redemption without coming across as preachy and that’s where it’s nothing like Mitch Albom. There is a world of difference line between bittersweet and saccharine. I personally think Rice pulls it off.

The book has also been adapted for the stage (by Rob Evans in Scotland and Paula Wing in Canada) to great success. The film version is quite watchable. It’s tidier than the book, a little more realistic. In the book Rex is a drunk but in the film he’s not. In the book we see many of the townsfolk out looking for Pobby and Dingan but in the film we do not. In the film the wife is Australian not British and so the character of Granny Pom vanished completely. But the main difference between the two is the ending. The film blurs what happens at the end of the book, at least the cinema release does. When the film was shown on BBC2 the director’s original ending was restored.

You can read an excerpt from the book here, the first three chapters actually, and a poem, ‘Ramone’.

I’ll leave you with the trailer to the film.




ben_rice Ben Rice was born in Tiverton, Devon in 1972, where Dan Rhodes was born as it happens but they never knew each other growing up. He studied English at the universities of Newcastle and Oxford before undertaking a Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He’s travelled widely through Europe, Asia and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and also spent a year in Maine as a child, when his father was an exchange professor. He travelled to Australia on a writing scholarship and visited Lightning Ridge, the opal mining community where his girlfriend grew up. The experience resulted in his novella, Pobby and Dingan which he wrote whilst back in London. It was first published in the Australia edition of Granta: The Magazine of New Writing No. 70 Winter 2000. Now, very much like his creations, he seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. I found several Ben Rices online – one of whom was also born in Devon and is working as a surveyor and another who’s running a fruit and veg shop in London – but no sign of Ben Rice the writer. Not yet anyway.


Von said...

Probably fel into the opal tailings or choked learning to play the Didg! Or maybe he's hiding out in the Outback learning some authenticity. It is important if you're going to attempt to write about a community and culture not your own that you do get the details right, anything else is sloppy and destroys any credibility you may have had.It's also demonstrates a patronising attitude if it's not worth getting detail right.Another one for the remainder shop?

Von said...

PS love to see an excellent poet like you reading something decent like Tim Winton or Sir Les Murray!

Jessica Bell said...

Hmm, I might just have to check that Ben Rice out ...

Jim Murdoch said...

I can sympathise, Von, but I suppose it depends on who your audience is just how realistic you need to make your writing. For most of us here in the UK we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Australia is another world. What you need to look at is the story at the core of the book and decide if these minor details are enough to cripple it. For me they weren’t. He did visit the community that he based his book on and he had an Australian girlfriend who grew up there and no doubt proofread the text so I think he’s made a decent stab at getting it right. I liked the story. I liked the film too but the book was better.

I have read very little by Australian writers or poets. I imagine more British stuff heads your way than heads back to us which is a shame. And that doesn’t just go for writers. I wrote to Naxos a few years back mentioning that they had no contemporary Australian composers in their catalogue and to their credit they listened to me (at least I like to think I was the motivating factor). At the time I was ordering CDs direct from Australia they were so hard to come by here. Now I’ve quite a nice wee collection.

I’ve heard of Les Murray – I might have even read a couple of his poems – but Tim Winton is new to me. I’ve ordered a copy of In the Winter Dark to give him a try out.

Jim Murdoch said...

Like I said, Jessica, there's not much to check out which is a shame. I wonder what happened?

Elisabeth said...

Jim, I read your review and watched the trailer and wondered about what seems like the sad disappearance of its author. A bit like Pobby and Dingan, I suppose.

I haven't heard about the book or the film, but that's not saying much.

It's interesting to read about the Australian way of life through other eyes, though.

Jim Murdoch said...

I searched high and low, Lis, but I found very little. It happens though, people vanish. Probably the best example are pop stars and actors which is why we have shows like Where Are They Now? showing them working on building sites and for insurance agents now their fifteen minutes of fame’s been used up. But you imagine a writer as being something more than a job of work. And yet I keep running across people who only ever published a single novel and that was it. I might have been one of them. I never saw myself as a novelist. I still think I sound a bit arrogant calling myself one. I can live with ‘writer’ – just.

Did you miss my post on Ten Pound Poms by the way? I kinda thought you might have had something to say on the subject.

Von said...

Onya!Hope you enjoy Tim's work and persist in finding Sir Les.

Jim Murdoch said...

It was the shortest one I could find, Von. I do love my novellas.

Elisabeth said...

I'll get to your ten pound pom, Jim, I will soon. I'm sorry I missed it, and look forward to reading.

Jim Murdoch said...

No pressure, Lis.

Von said...

Tried Jim? Plenty of choice there.

Jim Murdoch said...

The problem is the carriage, Von. When I was ordering CDs from Australia I was flush. Now it would have to be a very special item for me to pay the A$11.67 shipping charge. I can really see why e-books will take off. Books are becoming something people think about before buying. I never buy new books for myself. In fact the last two books I ordered from cost 1p and 53p respectively. But the postage on those two amounts to £5.60 (A$8.64).

Dave King said...

I think I might have picked this book from the title alone - though I would not have gone to the film on the strength of its title.

I began to feel a shade disappointed the way the story opened, but that feeling didn't last for long. I'd be interested to know, though, if you got that feeling reading it.

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Dave, I am in total agreement there. I think titles are very important and none of us, including me, pay enough attention to them. I can’t say I found the beginning disappointing though. I was too curious to see if Pobby and Dingan were real (like the pooka in Harvey). I’ve learned of another story by an Australian writer called Our Father Who Art in the Tree which sounds quite similar in tone to this one. It’s written from the perspective of a little girl who believes her late father is living on inside the tree in their backyard.

Peter said...

Then there are my book reviews, written generally after the author dies, often after the book goes out of print, and sometimes after I've read the book. I guess I'm not striking fear in The Guardian's heart.

But it sounds like McCrum was doing what we do: reviewing a book out of love.

Jim Murdoch said...

And I like to do those too, Peter. It’s nice to get sent free books and all that, in fact I was just saying to Lindsay Clarke the other day (we exchanged a few e-mails after I reviewed his latest novel) that book reviewing has introduced me to the 21st century. Before that all I read usually were books that were decades old and I’m still drawn to them given a choice but the simple fact is that there are still being written very interesting books. How many will live to become classics is another matter but I’ve a friend who works with old books and he recently published a list of bestselling authors from the thirties or some time like that and the names were completely unknown to me. But I find that all the time, authors (and composers and artists) who have been slogging away for a lifetime and I didn’t even know they existed. My latest discovery is the Russian composer Mieczysław Weinberg. According to one reviewer he ranked as, "the third great Soviet composer, along with Prokofiev and Shostakovich" and never even knew his name. The same goes for Nobel Prize winners. Nine times out of ten I’ve never heard of them let alone read anything by them.

Peter said...

The world is broad and wide, and I feel it is still a matter of chance whom I discover and spend time reading despite my best research. As much as I like a particular author, the supply of great work out there makes many of the best books I read feel almost fungible. But, as the radio traffic reporter admonishes me every weekday, "Pick your lane and stay with it."

Jim Murdoch said...

If I live another 25 years, Peter, which would be about par for the course given how long my parents lasted, that means I have enough time to read another 1300 books. Once you can start to put a figure on something like that then the need not to waste your time suddenly hits home. In my twenties there was a time when I only read books by Nobel Prize winners and a part of me thinks I had the right idea.

Mimsy said...

I enjoyed your blog, I have the novella and was privvy to the filmmaking process, as my daughter played kelly Anne. I have the unpublished original edit of the movie, and I am sure if you saw it would be able to reveiew differently. I prefer that version, but by the time, the Rennaisance dropped the movie, and Icon picked it up, and the Japanese audience vetoed so much landed on the cutting room floor, that brings the film closer to the book. Its always a shame

Jim Murdoch said...

That was very interesting, Mimsey. I don’t think film editors get enough credit. They can ruin a film (The Magnificent Ambersons) or they can save it (Psycho). That’s why we keep getting all these ‘director’s cuts’ appearing. Always best I think if the director is involved. Then he’s no one to blame bar himself. Assuming the studio lets him. Thanks for your comment.

Mimsy said...

No they don't, I think the version is so chopped.. its makes me annoyed, as the original had Ashmol narrating.. and explaining Opal basics that would make more sense.The producer from what I can gather laments constantly the chopped final and annoyed about it.I guess if someone funds it and says to chop out a scene, you have to jump.. maybe not. You can see Ben Rice popping in and out the funeral scene in a Big black hat. he is a great man, and we enjoyed the experince immensely. I know they toyed with ideas about how real to make pobby and dingan.. outlines, invisible footprints, you see the door open in the cubby house. Did you know all the kids drawings at the end are real "imaginary freinds" from school kids around the world!

Jim Murdoch said...

Now you’ve made me think of two other films, Mimsy, Blade Runner and the Jimmy Stewart classic, Harvey. Blade Runner exists in at least four different cuts and I’ve seen them all. The only real difference is one has a voiceover and a happy ending tagged on whereas the other, the director’s preferred version, has no noiresque narrator and an ambiguous ending. I prefer the original cinema simply because I saw it first and that’s settled into my head as the definitive version even if it’s not the best version. Even when I see later cuts the voiceover is still there in my head so it’s basically ruined them for me.

With Harvey the problem is how real to make him. You want some evidence that he’s not simply a figment of Elwood’s imagination but not enough as to leave no doubt. I think they just about managed that in the film. And, of course, that was the problem with Pobby and Dingan, where to draw the line. Too long since I’ve seen the film to remember now I’m afraid but I do recall the kids’ drawing from the end now you mention it.

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