New Cumbria (1)

A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire
A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire

It’s time for another update on the world of Dido Twite according to the account in Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake. We’ve had an overview, and we’ve looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’). It remains for us to examines the themes that the author touches on (the ‘what’), but right now we’re going to look at the novel’s geography (the ‘where’).

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Rapier wit

Tongue firmly lodged in cheek:

Zenrinji

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If ever forced to try out swordplay
I’d fail to be a Cyrano.
And as for impro wordplay,
expecting puns? Oh, sirrah, no!

Clash of steel best fitting crossed swords
(whether epées, foils or rapiers),
flash of real wit suiting crosswords
(often met in broadsheet papers):

all would go from bad to worse
(same as when I’m writing verse).
I’m as like to win a duel as
write a gem fit for a jeweller’s.

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Utterly charming

Still from Emil und die Detektive (1931) showing the man in the bowler hat being shadowed by the 'detectives'
Still from Emil und die Detektive (1931) showing the man in the bowler hat being shadowed

Erich Kästner: Emil and the Detectives
Translated from the German by Eileen Hall
Illustrated by Walter Trier

Vintage Classics 2012
(English translation 1959; Emil und die Detektive was first published in 1929)

 It’s wonderful that this slight novel, nearly ninety years old now, is still a delight and a joy to read. Firstly, it goes clean against most of the highly didactic juvenile fiction of the day: the moral, such as it is, is directed to the grown-ups and not the young:

‘So you don’t think there’s anything to be learnt from all that’s happened?’ said Aunt Martha. ‘Money should always be sent through the post!’ said Grandma, with a merry, tinkling laugh.

Secondly, the pace and all the details are perfect. Things are described, things happen, they lead on to the next bit of action and so on; the suspense is maintained but is never unbearable; and there are no tricksy denouements as pretty much all the clues have been clearly and carefully signposted. The protagonist is both polite and likeable but not without mischief, and thus easy to identify with. While this is ostensibly a boy’s story, the adult females are strong characters, and the one girl to appear is especially proactive. I defy anyone not to be utterly charmed by this tale, its humour and its evocation of what it is to be young.

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In praise of political correctness

hate-week
Still from the 1956 film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984

Political correctness gone mad.

How many times have you heard this phrase? Me, I’ve lost count, but I could almost guarantee that the person speaking it has it in mind to say something outrageous about how wrong it is to try to be a decent human being. (It’s the same as when somebody declares, “I’m not racist, but …” — though, regretfully, that’s a topic for another time.)

Here are two definitions I’ve culled from the ether of political correctness which to me reflect the original concept of the phrase:

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Where was The Shire?

Black Mountains
Black Mountains above Crickhowell, Powys, with Table Mountain’s silhouette on the right

Harken, friends of Halflings, I have a question! But before I ask it, let me lay bare the background.

Here in the Black Mountains of Wales, in the Vale of the Usk, there is a popular local tradition that J R R Tolkien was inspired by the local scenery and placenames to borrow several locations, thinly disguised, for his vision of the Shire in Middle Earth. Among the several places I’ve either seen or heard touted are Buckland near Brecon, Llangattock Mountain north of the South Wales Valleys, Sugar Loaf Mountain by Abergavenny, and Crickhowell, all in this southeastern corner of Wales.

For example, as part of the annual Crickhowell Walking Festival (“Now in its 10th year!”) is a walk which is described thus: A Walk Through Tolkien’s Shire.

Crickhowell is thought to be the inspiration for “Crickhollow” village in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit”.

Of course you will immediately note several objections to this statement. The phrase “is thought” is a wonderful catch-all: no reference, no evidence, and no doubt easy to conclude that it is the actual inspiration. Secondly, Crickhollow is not mentioned in The Hobbit, though it does appear in The Lord of the Rings. Thirdly, it is not a village. In Chapter V of The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ we’re told that Crickhollow is “Frodo’s new house”:

It was an old-fashioned countrified house, as much like a hobbit-hole as possible: it was long and low, with no upper storey; and it had a roof of turf, round windows, and a large door.

Let’s put these objections aside for the moment as probable misrememberings. Here is my actual question, and I’m genuinely interested in the answer: Did Tolkien actually visit this part of Wales? And where might I find the evidence? (Yes, I know technically that’s two questions, but they are inter-related!) Only then can we evaluate whether south Powys has a genuine claim to be a model for the Shire.

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Miss Pittikin Pattikin and others

Capriccio with a British man-o-war(c) Essex County Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
John Thomas Serres (1759–1825) Capriccio with a British man-o-war (© Essex County Council; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Another post looking at the background to Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake (1981) with its wonderful amalgam of history, alternate history, legend and whimsy. This one will look at the persons mentioned in the novel, saying who they are, what they do and, in some cases, why they may have been given the names they have; discussion follows below.

As I’ve found, Joan’s whimsical-looking names aren’t always what they appear, and there’s often a logical reason for why they’re applied to a particular character.

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The future now

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Nikola Tesla 1856 – 1943

Inverted Commas 1: The modern world viewed from 1926

When wireless is perfectly applied, the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.

Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

We shall be able to witness and hear events — the inauguration of a President, the playing of a World Series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle — just as though we were present.

Nikola Tesla’s prescient prediction of the internet, skype, the mobile phone (or cellphone) and live reporting — and all this in 1926, ninety-one years ago.

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Sadly not all his predictions have come true, for example:

International boundaries will be largely obliterated and a great step will be made toward the unification and harmonious existence of the various races inhabiting the globe.

And why we are still waiting for this?

It is clear to any trained observer, and even to the sociologically untrained, that a new attitude toward sex discrimination has come over the world through the centuries, receiving an abrupt stimulus just before and after the [First] World War.

This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior.  The modern woman, who anticipates in merely superficial phenomena the advancement of her sex, is but a surface symptom of something deeper and more potent fermenting in the bosom of the race.

It is not in the shallow physical imitation of men that women will assert first their equality and later their superiority, but in the awakening of the intellect of women.

Through countless generations, from the very beginning, the social subservience of women resulted naturally in the partial atrophy or at least the hereditary suspension of mental qualities which we now know the female sex to be endowed with no less than men.

  • John B Kennedy, “When Woman Is Boss: An Interview with Nikola Tesla,” Collier’s, January 30th, 1926;
    cited in Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: the legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently, 2015;
    whole text at http://www.tfcbooks.com/tesla/1926-01-30.htm [accessed February 2nd 2017]

Inverted commas will be another occasional series, this time of quotations that strike me as appealing, intriguing or apposite.

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