A mountain to climb

John Keay The Great Arc:
the dramatic tale of how India was mapped
and Everest was named

HarperCollins 2001 (2000)

At the edge of the Welsh town of Crickhowell in the Black Mountains of Wales lies the Georgian manor house of Gwernvale, now a hotel. It was built by Greenwich solicitor William Tristram Everest, and local lore claims that his eldest son George was born here: his baptismal certificate attests that he was born on the 4th July 1790, but there’s no supporting evidence as to where. As it was not till several months later that he was baptised at St Alphage church, Greenwich — on 27th January 1791 — the legend appears plausible until one considers the likelihood that the present building was only constructed between 1797 and 1803. Be that as it may, there is a neatness about George Everest’s possible connections with the Black Mountains and the mountain named after him in 1865, with the added irony that he never actually set eyes on the world’s highest summit.

Lieutenant, later Colonel, George Everest — the name should be pronounced Eve-rest, by the way, not as three-syllabic Ever-est — succeeded William Lambton as principal surveyor of the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, which in time became the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. The Arc closely followed the meridian 78° east of Greenwich, spreading its triangulated tentacles east and west in its effort to accurately map the whole of British India, from Cape Comorin in the south to the Himalayan foothills in the north and beyond. The rate of attrition for the army of surveyors, their assistants and support was equivalent to the decimation of an army over its half-century of existence; malaria, fevers, animal attacks and sheer exhaustion exacted a heavy price for the inch-perfect survey.

The epic story of Lambton, Everest, their assistants and successors as told by John Keay is one of slow but steady success despite Continue reading “A mountain to climb”

Time to read

book collection
Vintage copies of Girl’s Own Annual in Cardiff Castle’s library

When do you read? And what do you read whenever it is when you’re reading?

I ask this because I find that, almost unconsciously, I’ve slipped into an odd habit in recent months. Before your imaginations leap to unwarrantable conclusions, I hasten to qualify this statement: I’m finding — increasingly — that not only am I reading two or three titles simultaneously, I’m additionally selecting what time of day to read them.

Here’s the thing: Continue reading “Time to read”

Set in a bizarre Britain

Beardsley's Merlin
Beardsley’s Merlin

Diana Wynne Jones The Merlin Conspiracy
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2004 (2003)
No 2 in The Magids mini-series

Until I first read this in 2004 my only previous acquaintance with Diana Wynne Jones was through her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Vista 1996), a thoroughly enjoyable tongue-in-cheek encyclopaedic tour of the conventions of post-Tolkien fantasy writing. This outing for the much-published children’s writer includes much of that irreverent humour (we meet an elephant called Mini and a coffee-addicted SF-detective writer called Maxwell Hyde, for example, whose name seems to be a compound of a well-known instant coffee brand and a literary split personality). And it all starts with the title, which is about a conspiracy concerning the Merlin.

From this we gather that the main setting for the plot is not Earth as we know it but an alternative world in a fictional multiverse. Nick Malory, supposedly originating from ‘our’ world, is eventually propelled into this other Britain which goes by the name of Blest; Blest is a rather apt name, not only for its Otherworld echoes in Greek and Celtic mythology but also because many of its denizens are witches and others adept at natural magic (such as the story’s other principal protagonist, Arianrhod). The conspiracy involves the replacement of ‘the Merlin’ — chief wizard of the country of Logres, England in our world — with a false Merlin. Naturally this has repercussions on Blest, its wider world and on parallel worlds. Oh, and did I mention time-travel as well?

Right up to its apocalyptic conclusion this is a very readable novel, despite its convoluted plot, and one you may well get through in very few sittings. For those with a penchant for legends a lot of the fun comes from spotting both the overt and subtler Arthurian references, along with undertones of William Blake and others. Then perhaps it’ll be time to search out those other titles of hers — such as Deep Secret, this book’s prequel in the Magids mini-series, or her posthumous The Islands of Chaldea, set in another bizarre Britain the equal of the Isles of the Blest.

  • March is remembered by Jones fans every year as an occasion to celebrate her work in the month of her death. DWJMarch (the brainchild of Kristen of the We Be Reading blog) — has now been expanded  to include Terry Pratchett and has therefore morphed into March Magics! This then is a DWJ taster in case I don’t get round to (re)reading one of her novels in March. By the way, this is an edited repost of an online review I did a few years ago for LibraryThing and Goodreads, adapted from a journal review I did around ten years or so ago

Spoiler alerts!

paperbacks
Re-shelving in progress

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I used to glance at the end of any novel I was reading to get an inkling of how it would turn out. It may have been a quirk of youth, the same way that modern youngsters playing platform video games research what ‘cheats’ are available to help get them onto the next level.

(Of course non-fiction usually plays by different rules, especially those titles on the scholarly end of the spectrum: the old advice on writing essays — “Say what you’re going to say, say it, and then say what you’ve just said” — generally applies, with the work’s conclusions revealed on the back cover or dust jacket (or, as in the case of papers, in the Abstract). The principle here is less what you conclude and more how you get to your conclusion.)

So. Spoilers. You either hate ’em or love ’em.

Continue reading “Spoiler alerts!”

The hand of the poet

Hereford's Mappa Mundi (public domain)
Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (public domain)

Owen Sheers: Resistance
Faber and Faber 2008 (2007)

‘What is it?’ she asked.

Albrecht’s voice came from behind her, out of the darkness. ‘The world,’ he said. ‘Or at least an idea of it.’

Maps and journeys dominate this novel. Historic maps of the medieval world. A route across southern England. The cul-de-sac that is an isolated valley in the Welsh Marches. The pathways of human memories. The unmapped future when one steps off the end of the known world. The past as it might have been if history had taken a different direction.

All fictions could be said to be alternative histories, in that they describe people who may not have existed and events that may never have happened in our own physical world. Resistance however sits firmly in the alternate history genre given that it envisages what might have happened if Nazi Germany had finally triumphed; it’s a popular theme, explored for example in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sheers’ novel Hitler’s armies have seen success both on the Eastern Front and in Western Europe, and have begun their successful invasion of Britain in autumn 1944. The novel’s action focuses on the Olchon valley, an isolated location north of Abergavenny, and it is here that a group of German soldiers are sent on a clandestine mission by Himmler and where they mysteriously encounter an all-female community.

Foregrounded are the German officer, Albrecht Wolfram, and Sarah Lewis, the farmer abandoned by her husband Tom; the latter, we surmise, has joined a covert Auxiliary Unit manned by insurgents — as the Germans call them — to maintain resistance against the occupiers. Sarah and the other women (Maggie, Mary, Menna and Bethan) are completely in the dark as to why their men have left, but with winter approaching they have no choice but to get on as best they can with the demands of hill farming. It comes as a complete shock when Captain Wolfram and his men appear. What do they want, and why are they here?

Continue reading “The hand of the poet”

The Art of Reviewing

bookmarks

I enjoy reading reviews, especially book reviews of course, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be something I’ve already read or even intend to read. And most of you will know I also enjoy writing reviews, and therefore have always tried to keep a few pointers in mind as advice for myself.

A recent query in Quora, the question-and-answer website, got me trying to fill out the details of those pointers, for my own sake as well as for other interested folk. The question was, What are the things to keep in mind when reviewing? Here’s my edited answer, for what it’s worth.

*  *  *  *  *

Continue reading “The Art of Reviewing”

A fine weird imagination

1881 unexplored
The parts of the world (vertical stripes) still ‘unexplored’ by Western nations around 1881

H Rider Haggard King Solomon’s Mines
Reader’s Digest Association 1996 (1885)

Haggard wrote this as a reaction to Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883); he believed he could write a more exciting novel, leading him in King Solomon’s Mines to produce an action-filled first-person narrative that sold sensationally well on its eventual publication in 1885. In some ways the quest plot is similar — a group of adventurers sets out, map in hand, to a previously unknown destination, surviving natural dangers, privations, battles and treachery along the way — but where Stevenson’s narrative is epistolary, deliberately archaic (it was set a hundred years before the author’s time) and occasionally backtracked in time Haggard’s storyline is contemporary, follows Time’s arrow, and is mostly told in breathless prose. It set the tone for the numerous Boy’s Own stories that were to follow in its wake.

As with Treasure Island the author tries hard to create verisimilitude by seemingly accurate details. Continue reading “A fine weird imagination”

Charmless

satyr face

Dan has bought a Roman fetish in a junk shop — he calls it an antique shop but it’s like a disgusting back street emporium. I hate it, I hate it. It’s just lewd. What did he call it, a satire? No, that’s something else. A satyr, that’s it. A nasty evil-looking thing with crafty, smirking eyes that look at you in a horrible knowing way, you know? A leer, that’s what it is.

But that’s not all, it’s got … I can hardly bring myself to describe it. He call it ‘apo-‘ something — he got me to repeat it a few times — apo-, apo-, apotropaic, that’s it. He says it’s an ancient charm to ward off evil, all ancient cultures had it, even in the Himalayas where I thought they were Buddhist or something. The Romans, he says, even stuck stone carvings of it on the ends of their roofs, their walls. Some old churches even have figures like them carved on the outside, over entrances — I don’t believe it, I can’t believe it. Churches? That’s not even Christian.

I can’t even bring myself to say it. It’s, it’s — I’ll have to use the Greek word he told me, sounds only a little less rude. A … phallus. There, it’s out. And a ruddy great one, horrible, yucky, obscene. What possessed Dan to buy it? It’s as if I don’t really know him, never knew he had this … this stuff in him, how could he do it, to me, his wife of all people, how could he? I’ll never, ever be able to look him in the face again. Never.

Charm, huh, I’ll give him charm. Ruddy thing.

*  *  *  *  *

One of the creative writing tasks we could choose this week was this scenario: two people on an unsatisfactory holiday together. One of them buys something the other dislikes intensely. Describe what happens.

Feeling is the leitmotif

Regency young man (2)
http://www.sellingantiques.co.uk/243352/fine-regency-oil-portrait-of-a-young-man/

Charlotte Brontë The Professor Wordsworth Classics 1994 (1857)

Despite the fact that this is, by modern standards anyway, a very uneven novel and that the protagonist is a bit of a prig, there remains much to enjoy over its twenty-five chapters. The story of William Crimsworth’s struggles to find his métier and eventual happiness echoes parts of Charlotte Brontë’s own experiences but also points up her own unfulfilled hopes for combining a loving marriage with a successful career as an independent woman. The fact that aspects of this novel — unpublished in her own lifetime — were recycled in Villette (published in 1853) suggests that she knew that those experiences were worth recording, even in fictional form.

A bald outline of the plot reads almost like a fairytale.
Continue reading “Feeling is the leitmotif”

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

Stats
Screen capture 28th January; text figures updated 30th January

 

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Benjamin Disraeli (attributed)

Do you look at your blog’s statistics, as provided by the backroom boys and girls of WordPress? (Or, rather, merely thrown up due to some clever programming?) Perhaps you think it’s as infra dig as Googling™ your name? Well, I’m a reprobate and beyond succour because not only do I check up how easy it is to find out all my details online (frighteningly so — have you tried yours?) but I also give a more than cursory glance to WP’s stats (or as 19th-century wisdom has it, the third and worst kind of lie).

Now in amongst all the figures a couple of things struck me. Continue reading “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”