Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) has already achieved recognition as a modern children’s classic, and quite rightly too. It spawned a dozen or more sequels, all set in an alternate history universe (“uchronia”) in a world a little like ours but with some alternative geography (“paracosm”). The majority of them feature that wonderful Cockney sparrow Dido Twite, though she didn’t appear till the second volume, Black Hearts in Battersea, only to seemingly drown.
I started taking notes on the sequence in 2012, fifty years after the first story appeared, but never got round to reviewing all the titles. In preparation for a re-read I intend to publish some of those notes on this blog in the hopes they may be of interest to diehard fans as well as to new readers yet to fall under Aiken’s spell. This first occasional post is about Dido’s colourful lexicon, and here I acknowledge the influence of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (this first appeared in 1870, though my edition dates from the 1980s) and The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (re-issued in facsimile in 1994). Here it is then:
Norris J Lacy and Joan Tasker Grimbert (editors) A Companion to Chrétien de Troyes
D S Brewer 2008
We have a lot to be thankful to Chrétien de Troyes for: without him there would be no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail; he virtually kickstarted the romance tradition through his use of a vernacular language, French; and of the six surviving texts ascribed to him five have — to a greater or lesser extent — an Arthurian background. So, one of the great literary what-ifs must hinge on whether Arthurian literature, both medieval and modern, would have been what it is now if not for Chrétien. Continue reading “Imagine no Lancelot, no Camelot, no Holy Grail”→
Primo Levi A Tranquil Star Translated by Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli
Penguin Modern Classics 2008 (2007)
‘A Tranquil Star’ — the last of seventeen short stories which gives its name to this selection of previously unpublished pieces in translation — is as good a place as any to start a consideration of this collection. It begins with a discussion of the inadequacy of superlatives (immense, colossal, extraordinary) to give indications of comparative size, especially when it comes to stars. Al-Ludra is the now not-so-tranquil star when it comes to its convulsive, cataclysmic end; how to describe an event which is beyond the comprehension of most, an event that is measured “not in millions or billions of years but of hours and minutes”? All we can do is relate its death to the impact it has on a human being, something we can more easily understand. On October 19th 1950 Ramón Escojido, a Peruvian married to his Austrian wife Judith, notices something unusual in photos taken from his mountain observatory. His dilemma is this: does he assume it’s a blemish on his photographic plate of the night sky, or does he cancel the planned family excursion to double-check if, in fact, it’s really a supernova?
It was a little over half a century, but it may as well have been the Dark Ages. Bare knees raw from the wind and knocking together beneath scratchy woollen shorts, the lad of ten years circled the gloomy Georgian square clockwise. His companion was confident, having walked this route many times, but the newcomer’s heart pounded in his chest as loud as a drum beaten for an execution. As he walked to the topmost corner of the square the anonymous Bath stone buildings intimidated, staring impassively but judging this poor specimen of a schoolboy as wanting, inadequate, unprepared. As indeed he was.
Surrounded by stony-faced frontages was a fenced-off garden, its bleakness needing no Keep Out notice to suggest somewhere forbidden to the likes of him. A Victorian copy of a truncated medieval high cross stood in one angle, dominated by the grey pillared tree trunks and overlooked by stripped bare boughs.
As they climbed the few steps to the entrance he gave another shiver. His blue gabardine mac gave no protection against the bitter weather, nor did his black blazer which, as he was to find out, made him as overheated in summer as it failed to safeguard him against winter cold. As the pair entered the lobby through double wooden doors his companion hissed at him to remove his cap. Out of the wind his ears stung with sudden warmth; however, when his gloves – sewn to pieces of elastic – shot up his raincoat sleeves, his fingers remained as bereft of feeling as if he’d never worn them in the first place.
A glance around confirmed what in retrospect he would recognise as a Dickensian scene: the dark panelling of the entrance; the shining shoulder-height paint on corridor walls; and, above all, the crow-like creatures who suddenly loomed into view. These were Irish Christian Brothers, neither necessarily Irish nor very Christian, and rarely brotherly. In the capacious pockets of their black habits they each carried a wicked leather strap which they named Fred or Excalibur or some such companionable name. The youngster would get to know these instruments of chastisement very soon, all too well and always with fear. For this he had left a near idyllic existence, for this he had travelled over ten thousand miles from the other side of the world.
* Another submission for creative writing classes, the theme genre writing, the genre Gothic, the prose overlarded …
Enid Blyton Five Go Adventuring Again Illustrated by Eileen A Soper
Hodder Children’s Books 1997 (1943)
The second in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, Five Go Adventuring Again as before features siblings Julian (12), Dick (11) and Anne (10), together with their eleven-year-old cousin Georgina– hereinafter George — and her dog Timothy (also variously referred to as Tim, Timmy and a ‘peculiar-looking’ and ‘terrible mongrel’). Published the year after Five on a Treasure Island but set during the Christmas holidays of the same year, this outing for the quintet also involves intrepid youngsters, unbelieving grown-ups and a few dastardly villains.
Circumstances dictate that the trio again spend time at Kirrin Cottage by the sea where, not unexpectedly, trouble finds them. In 1943 Britain was still at war, though you’ll find no reference to the conflict bar the fact that a secret formula is close to being stolen by enemies of the state. Continue reading “Secrets galore”→
For TV dramas set in hospitals the general rule is that nothing – neither sets, costume nor location shots – should include the colour red. Why? This is because it may limit the impact when blood is first introduced into the action. Apparently the shock of that crimson fluid staining a largely monochrome palate produces an atavistic reaction in most people, especially when it’s allied to a storyline that raises expectations of an immanent coup-de-theatre.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.