A flock of twites

Photo © C A Lovegrove

As is my practice after reviewing one of the instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles I explore four main areas: people, places, timelines and themes. Within these four categories answers are sought for the classic six questions — who? what? when? where? why? and how? — and applied to Cold Shoulder Road, one of the penultimate episodes in this alternative history saga set in the first half of the 19th century.

* Spoiler Alert *

Following posts on chronology, topography and themes, this post now begins exploring the personages in Cold Shoulder Road, many of whom (as the title suggests) aren’t particularly friendly to our principal protagonists, Is and Arun Twite. Unlike many previous instalments this novel includes fewer peculiar or even humorous names than before, but many nevertheless have likely or possible significances. And we get to discover yet more Twites, members perhaps of the extended family with a name recalling a rather undistinguished-looking finch.

As the blurb of the Red Fox edition has it, young Arun Twite

returns to his mother’s house on Cold Shoulder Road, only to find it deserted and flood-ravaged. […] With the help of his indomitable cousin, Is Twite, Arun sets off in search of Admiral Fishskin — their only key to discovering the real truth, whatever it may be.

Fellow author Nina Bawden wrote that Joan Aiken is such a spellbinder, and she wasn’t far wrong.

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Imagine unquiet slumbers

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Glass Town Wars
by Celia Rees,
Pushkin Press 2019 (2018)

I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next the moor: […] I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, chapter XXXIV

Confusing. Puzzling. Strange. As I proceeded through the pages of this novel I had similar reactions to many readers in online reviews, but it wasn’t till I got to a mention of “true Thomas” that I began to pick my way with more confidence through Celia Rees’s episodic and kaleidoscopic narrative. And then I began to understand how its various strands interlaced, and was able to stand back and see the vision the tapestry offered.

Tom is in a coma in hospital after some unclear incident, tended by a solicitous male nurse. Tom’s fickle girlfriend posts selfies of herself with his comatose body on social media in order to capitalise on his misfortune; his computer whizz schoolfriend Milo is using Tom as a guinea-pig for an experimental dark web implant; and Lucy sits by Tom’s bedside reading aloud her class’s set book Wuthering Heights in the hopes that he might keep a hold on the outside world.

And so without his acquiescence Tom finds himself emmeshed with a paracosm created by the four Brontë siblings, the world of Glass Town and its warring polities; it becomes a world dangerous for the dreamer because events in this virtual existence will have consequences for him in the 21st century.

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A closely woven story

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”
— From the Foreword (1966) to The Lord of the Rings

As part of my discussion of The Lord of the Rings under the general heading Talking Tolkien I want to consider the dread word allegory because, despite so much authoritative refutation, one still sees the earnest question online (eg here) along the lines of “Is The Lord of the Rings an allegory?”

A deliberate reading of a story as allegory is termed allegoresis. However, Tolkien’s own Foreword to the Second Edition denied absolutely that the War of the Ring was a closet way of referring to the Great War or the Second World War, with the One Ring a substitute for the Bomb: the crucial chapter, as he emphasised for example, “was written long before the foreshadow of 1939 had yet become a threat of inevitable disaster. […] The real war does not resemble the legendary war in its process or its conclusion.”

So why, in the face of such a public denial, does so much commentary still obsess about the novel being an allegory? Probably the answer partly lies in what Tolkien termed applicability and a persistent inability by some to distinguish between perception and intention.

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#1936Club: The Shining Trapezohedron

Illustration by Virgil Finlay for ‘Weird Tales’, 1936

‘The Haunter of the Dark’ (1936)
by H P Lovecraft,
in The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories,
edited by S T Joshi. Penguin Books 1999.

With its suitably macabre title ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ was the last published fiction of H P Lovecraft, who died from intestinal cancer in the year following its appearance. It follows the narrative pattern of much that he wrote in this genre: a student of the occult, inevitably a male, sticks his nose into a place or situation which any sensible person would steer clear of, ignoring all the telltale signs. But then, we wouldn’t have a story if they really were as sensible as the rest of us!

Set in contemporary Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft’s home town, this short fiction conceals beneath its lugubrious exterior a glee that incorporates in-jokes shared with fellow writers and acolytes, along with his individual literary style marked by a superfluity of favourite adjectives and repeated words which conversely risks becoming banal.

But then one doesn’t read collections of Lovecraft stories for its range but for the familiar slow build-up of immanent alien presence and the inevitable demise of the protagonist, or the narrator’s reduction to a gibbering wreck or, at best, transformation to a sadder and wiser man.

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Shouldering themes

The Great Storm of 1703 when hundreds of ships were wrecked off the Goodwin Sands

By internal chronology one of the penultimate instalments in Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, Cold Shoulder Road (1995) nevertheless shares several of the thematic motifs of the preceding volumes, one of the features that helps to characterise the whole sequence. As is my practice I shall be listing and discussing these, with a certain big proviso …

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Just deserts

Lipizzaner horse and rider, from a vintage postcard

The Star of Kazan
by Eva Ibbotson.
Macmillan Children’s Books 2008 (2004)

‘Oh God, she had to believe that her mother was good. How did people live if they thought their mother was dishonest?’
— Chapter 37

Two striking images, among so very many, stand out for me in this novel: one is of a Lipizzaner horse and its rider, working together as one, and the other is of an armoured fist sometimes accompanied by the motto, ‘Stand aside, Ye Vermin Who Oppose Us’. And between the two uneasily sits the figure of 12-year-old foundling Annika who finds herself emotionally torn between the community which has raised her and the family she never knew she had.

Brought up at the turn of the 20th century in a Vienna then at the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she is raised below stairs in an academic household, loved and repaying that love in countless ways. She is quick to learn, to make friendships, to develop and enjoy skills such as cooking. But all the time she harbours dreams of her birth mother coming to claim her, explain her abandonment and then whisk her off to a new life.

But when that day does come and she is taken to North Germany to live in a castle, she finds that dreams are rarely the same as reality — and in her innocence she is unable to accept that people can be dissembling and not have her welfare truly at heart.

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Talking ’bout Tolkien

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

— Chapter III, The Fellowship of the Ring.

I first heard about J R R Tolkien in 1967, from a fellow student who brazenly flourished under my nose her three hardback volumes of The Lord of the Rings given by her parents. She enthused about it so much that, when the one-volume paperback (minus the appendices) came out in 1968 I promptly bought myself a copy from my rapidly-depleting student grant and first immersed myself properly in Middle-earth.

How had I not heard of him before, or his works? — because by this time the third edition of The Hobbit had been published in 1966, and hobbitomania was starting to make itself manifest in popular culture — and yet all of that had somehow passed me by. I am one of those who barely remembers the sixties because I sleepwalked my way through them, and for a few decades more.

Anyway, that was the start of my involvement with the work of what Paul Kocher called the Master of Middle-earth. I read The Lord of the Rings pretty much every ten years or so until my 1968 edition with its Pauline Baynes cover eventually fell apart: sometime, probably in the new millennium as the Jackson trilogy opened in the cinemas, I acquired a pre-loved 1993 edition with appendices and a John Howe illustration of Gandalf on the cover.

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Midgard myths re-mixed

Sigurd fights the dragon
Sigurd fights the dragon

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún
by J R R Tolkien,
edited by Christopher Tolkien.
HarperCollins 2010 (2009)

Middle Earth author | resets ancient Norse sagas | in Modern English.

One of the best-known heroes in Norse mythology, Sigurd is better known as Siegfried from German versions of the legends, and his exploits and interactions – from killing a dragon and re-forging a mighty sword, say, to his relationships with his wife Gudrún, with warrior princess Brynhild and with a host of other personages – characterise him as much as they echo the exploits and interactions of other heroes in other times and cultures.

Here Tolkien attempts a harmonisation of the various early tales, particularly those in the Poetic Edda, and versifies them in English as ‘The New Lay of the Völsungs’ (in ten parts) and ‘The New Lay of Gudrún’, using forms and alliteration modelled on those early originals.

This posthumous publication ought by rights to appeal to a wide range of readers, from hobbit-fanciers to Wagnerites, from poets to psychologists, and from medieval literature specialists to mythologists, but I suspect it will end up satisfying only those whose interests overlap a number of these categories; for any single one of those categories of readers it may well end up a disappointment.

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Secrets underground

Sketch map of Kent to illustrate Cold Shoulder Road locations

In a previous post, ‘Dark doings in Kent’, I discussed some of the sites in Kent, real and imaginary, which featured in Joan Aiken’s alternative history novel Cold Shoulder Road, one of her Wolves Chronicles. In this post, therefore, I want to mention the remaining locations, primarily down on the Kent coast but also near Calais, visited by our young protagonists Is and Arun Twite.

What exactly is the purpose of this kind of discussion and others like it? I suppose there are actually three purposes.

  1. Because I can. I worry away at details in each chronicle because it’s fun, and it helps me, if no one else, to inhabit the series as much as is possible.
  2. Because nobody else much will. Apart from a few correspondents (and thank goodness for them and their engagement!) most readers and reviewers are happy to ride the crest of the narrative, and occasionally puzzle about something obscure, before moving on.
  3. Because Joan Aiken’s worldbuilding deserves acknowledging. Though she’s often inconsistent there’s a glorious mix of imaginative terraforming and flexible timelining into which she places her colourful characters.

Without further ado I shall now plunge into the remaining, rather peculiar, geography of the novel.

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The apotheosis of artifice

Giambattista Piranesi, Carcere XIV (‘The Gothic Arch’)

The Narrative of Trajan’s Column
by Italo Calvino,
translated by Martin McLaughlin.
Penguin Great Ideas 115,
Penguin Classics 2020

Just the titles of so many of these pieces are mouthwateringly attractive — ‘The Museum of Wax Monsters’, ‘The Adventures of Three Clockmakers and Three Automata’, ‘The Sculptures and the Nomads’ — and their contents don’t disappoint either. Martin McLaughlin has done a great job on the translation as far as I can tell because the sentences feel newly minted, as though directly from the hand of the author to the reader.

Except there are clues that these are not recent writings: references are made to a time before the Iranian Revolution and to a few other events that locate them firmly to a time before the author’s premature death in 1985 — he was only in his 63rd year.

But it is Calvino’s gimlet observations, marshalling of details, and philosophical reflections that render his comments eternal and paradoxically contemporary, meaning that these dozen pieces will be for me a joy to revisit at some future date.

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A richly tapestried life

Obituary: Gerald Cadman
by B(etty) F(isher).
Proceedings of the West Anglian Field Club,
Vol II No 5 (1911)

I’m an inveterate rummager-about in those baskets charity shops often have, filled with out-of-date street maps, antiquated local history guides, yellowing sheet music and miscellaneous postcards. I’m always on the look-out for curiosities so I thought I’d share with you this item I acquired last year before lockdown put a stop to all such browsing.

It’s a special eight-page issue of the apparently now defunct Proceedings of the West Anglian Field Club, dedicated solely to the obituary of one Gerald Cadman, written by one B. F. (whom I take to be Betty Fisher, who’s listed as Secretary among the Club’s officers).

Gerald Cadman turns out to be a colourful character despite his sober profession of accountant, so what I want to do is pick out certain key points buried in Mrs Fisher’s prolix prose, which rambles on over nearly eight quarto pages.

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Marching off

The end of March, and a quarter of the way through the year after the year. Many readers have reported a slump in their reading (like many authors have noted lethargy where their writing is concerned) and I do understand that: the current global situation makes us all anxious and that hits us in different ways.

I find though that I can only really keep up my positivity through books; if I didn’t have access to books I’m not sure how I’d cope mentally because I’m an inveterate reader — social media, newspapers, food wrappers — and even my fallback, playing the piano, involves me doing a fair amount of sightreading scores.

Apologies, then, to those who are finding your literary mojo dampened: I do sympathise — even as I seek out the next thing to read, for my tottering TBR piles seem at the moment to be inexhaustible.

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Unputdownable

Angel niche
Angel niche © C A Lovegrove

Ghost of a Chance
by Rhiannon Lassiter.
Oxford University Press 2011

This, if it’s not too contradictory a description for a ghost-cum-detective story, is a delightful novel, often deeply satisfying and always captivating. The narrative is set within the span of a month, from April Fool’s Day to May Eve, and features the ghost of young Eva, who has to act as a kind of detective to uncover the details of her own murder.

Good detective stories include a cast of suspects and a shoal of red herrings, and we get plenty of both here. Ghost stories, by definition, must offer us a closetful of skeletons, spooks and denizens of the spirit world and there are enough here too for all the proverbial hairs on your neck.

Particularly memorable are the maid Maggie, the Witch and, most chilling of all, the Stalker, who feeds off other ghosts.

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Life in the realms of death

Imogen as Fidele, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (Wikimedia)

The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)

Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.

As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.

For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.

So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.

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A dead man’s chest

Bartholomew Roberts, known as Barti Ddu or Black Bart

Welsh Pirates and Privateers
by Terry Breverton.
Gwasg Carreg Gwalch 2018.

Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum…

Who does not thrill to very mention of pirates? I do, for sure, and for all the usual reasons — the smell of open sea, the ship in full sail, the thrill of the chase, the bustle of action as other ships are sighted. I’m less enamoured of the usual clichés though — the pirate talk, the romantic notion of the sea thief with a heart of gold beneath their bluff exterior, the stereotyped clothing — though I blame that on an early addiction to documented history.

So you can imagine my delight in spotting this pocket-sized volume: over fifty named Welsh pirates, a profusely illustrated text on quality paper, a discussion on how Welsh seamen were a key element in the history of piracy and privateering, all by a writer who had already authored seven books on the subject, with this volume a revised and updated version of his 2003 title The Book of Welsh Pirates and Buccaneers.

But I was to discover there were two sides to my reaction to this acquisition: genuine delight mixed with some frustration.

The good bits first.

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