At the margins

Obscured view looking northeast to the Black Mountains in Wales, beyond which lies England

Wandering around Words 8: March

No, this is not a post about the month marking the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Nor is it about walking determinedly from A to B. So what am I referring to?

I’m talking about a liminal space. ‘March’ in this sense is related to the Latin margo, “edge”, giving us the words “margin”, “marginal”, and so on: it can be a buffer, a No Man’s Land or Demilitarised Zone between two states; rulers of such spaces were typically termed margrave, marchese, marqués, marquis or marquess in medieval Europe.

Marches fascinate me. It helps that I live in the Welsh Marches, the lands that straddle the centuries-old fluctuating border between Wales and its bigger neighbour, England. Just like Scotland with its Borders and Ireland with The Pale the Welsh Marches have a long history of disputed control, first between the Britons and the incomers of Anglo-Saxon Mercia (“the land of the border people”) and later with powerful Norman lords asserting themselves against both the king of England and independent Welsh princes.

Here was built the mighty earthwork of Offa’s Dyke to demarcate Mercian territory from Wales; here briefly flourished the heroes who fought against English rule, historic figures like Owain Llawgoch and Owain Glyndŵr, here nestle sites traditionally associated with the legendary King Arthur.

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Siren song

Hope Mirrlees: Lud-in-the-Mist
Introduction by Neil Gaiman 2000
Gollancz 2018 (1926)

“… there is not a single homely thing that, looked at from a certain angle, does not become fairy.” — Endymion Leer

Something is, if not quite rotten, then unsettling in the state of Dorimare, a sleepy and somewhat smug country centred on its main town, Lud-in-the-Mist. Its principal citizen, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is to all intents and purposes a paragon of conformity, adhering to the letter of the law and to centuries-old traditions, but deep down he fears he is not what he tries to be: he worries he may be an outsider, his concerns arising from the fact that he has heard … the Note.

It becomes increasingly clear that the Note that haunts Nathaniel — which manifests itself as an awareness of something beyond his prosaic, mundane existence — is somehow connected with a nobleman ousted some centuries before and with smuggled goods known (but never referred to) as fairy fruit. Whether he wants to or not the good man will find himself drawn into a situation that will threaten both edifice and foundations of a way of life the citizens of Lud-in-the-Mist — Ludites all — take for granted.

This novel, despite clearly being a fantasy, crosses quite a few other genres while yet feeling one of a kind. Is it a philosophical meditation or a detective story? Is it about the conflict of civic duty and personal honour or about family life versus personal quests? Is justice about vengeance and retribution or about readjusting balance? As a novel does it retain a core of realism or is it veering towards a self-indulgent idyll? It is a bit of all these things and yet Lud-in-the Mist is not heavy: there are comic touches aplenty in amongst the satire, smiles amidst the malice, love in the face of broken friendships.

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Blog jam

Occasionally I like to post about Calmgrove‘s sister blogs, for those readers who may have forgotten (if they were ever aware of) their existence.

First up is Zenrinji, a blog devoted to flash fiction and — increasingly — micropoems and short-form poetry. The virtues of Zenrinji are that the posts are generally, well, short and that they are accompanied by pretty pictures.

Zenrinji is derived from the Japanese meaning something like The Temple of the Calm Grove, so you can guess one of the reasons I chose it.

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Walled in or out?

Nina Bawden: Off the Road
Puffin Books 2000 (1998)

It is the near future — 12th June 2040, to be precise. Britain is divided, east and west: the civilised part, the Urbs, is separated from the barbarians in the west by a wall. Young Tom, an only child, is accompanying his parents and his grandfather north to a Memory Theme Park and they stop their journey to recharge their electric vehicle at a service station just by the Wall. And then 65-year-old James Makepeace Jacobs, like a human White Rabbit, disappears through an exit at the back of the toilets. Tom feels compelled to follow his grandfather, and we’re almost immediately propelled into the action of Nina Bawden’s dystopian children’s novel.

Tom’s world provides an ordered existence, with everything organised and in its place, and that includes humans. There’s a one-child policy strictly in force, so any reference to siblings, aunts or uncles is taboo. Workers cease working at 60 and have five years in retirement — until the call comes for their enrolment in a Nostalgia Block of the nearest Memory Theme Park. Here Oldies spend a couple of days with their family reliving the world their childhood in a kind of virtual reality before they are left to be “gently and permanently cared for”.

The author, clearly, is heavily hinting at a form of state euthanasia, but before young readers can fully assimilate this Tom’s grandfather is on the run with Tom in hot pursuit. With this dark beginning Nina Bawden takes us in unexpected directions, with an apt ending I didn’t see coming.

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A lodge of her own

Patio and deckchairs in front of Virginia Woolf’s writing lodge

Another visit to the literary south coast of England finds us at Monk’s House at Rodmell in East Sussex, the home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf. We start at Virginia’s Writing Lodge, essentially a superior garden shed, completed in 1934.

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Living by ideas

A C Grayling: The Mystery of Things
Phoenix/Orion 2004

… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
King Lear

This thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative collection of over fifty essays and reviews by the philosopher A C Grayling (its title inspired by Shakespeare) perfectly illustrates both the wide range of his interests and his ability to write engagingly, in a style that neither talks down to his audience nor spares them his sometimes forthright views.

At the time of writing he is extremely active on social media decrying the disaster that is Brexit, taking British politicians to task over their wilful decisions and canvassing for a People’s Vote; but — even though you could argue this overshadows his day job — differing philosophies are actually at the heart of this make-or-break point in the UK’s history; and it’s important to distinguish between rational arguments and emotional responses, which of course is the job of the philosopher.

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Witch Week Day 7: Ending / Beginning

That wraps up Witch Week 2018, and Lizzie and Chris have so enjoyed hosting this. We couldn’t have done it without the help of everyone who participated:

• Marlyn, of Stuff ‘n’ Nonsense, for her list of Ten Kick-Ass Heroines
Tanya, of Tanya Manning-Yarde, PhD, for her beautiful review of Ursula K Le Guin’s poetry collection, Finding My Elegy
Piotrek and Ola of Re-enchantment of the World, for their discussion of the women in the Witcher stories by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski
Lory, of Emerald City Book Review, who last year retired her Witch Week broom yet found time to review Madeline Miller’s Circe and participate in our discussion of Le Guin’s The Other Wind
people — too numerous to mention — who added comments and questions; posted pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs; and Tweeted/Facebooked links to our posts

For anyone not yet sated, here are the links for the Emerald City Book Review Master Posts from earlier years:

Witch Week 2017: Dreams of Arthur
Witch Week 2016: Made in America
Witch Week 2015: New Tales from Old
Witch Week 2014: Diana Wynne Jones

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll join us next year, when our theme will be … VILLAINS.