Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea is, as well as a rip-roaring adventure story with vivid characters, a novel rich in sense of place, both real and imagined. In particular London features strongly (as it does in a couple of other Wolves Chronicles) so, with the help of Greenwood’s Map of London from an Actual Survey made in the Years 1825, 1825 and 1826, I shall be exploring Dido Twite’s London as it was in this alternate history in 1833, with other places to be detailed in another post. As well-known supermarket might say, I do the research so you don’t have to … Continue reading “Dido Twite’s London”
Jane Austen Lady Susan
(in Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008)
Will you walk into my parlour?” said the Spider to the Fly,
‘Tis the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy;
… Oh no, no,” said the little Fly, “to ask me is in vain,
For who goes up your winding stair can ne’er come down again.”
My July 2013 review of Austen’s Lady Susan, reposted just as a film adaptation arrives in cinemas (though now rebranded with a completely different Austen title as Love & Friendship — written when she was in her early teens) Continue reading “Walk into my parlour”
Repost, now 1/4 posts of a short story
Minnie was three going on four when she realised she had a special ability. With parents and siblings all keen on fantasy movies she naturally thought of it as her superpower, one she had to keep secret.
She knew all about secret identities — after all she was really Jasmine but everyone called her Minnie, and very apt as she was the youngest in the family. Her mum had wanted to call her after Hermione in the Harry Potter stories but she was shouted down by the rest of the family. So Minnie she became, at home, at playgroup and in nursery class.
She only gradually became aware of her superpower. A natural mimic, Minnie showed her dislike of certain individuals by copying and exaggerating their actions — behind their backs of course; she soon learned the folly of imitating them to their faces. With an unwelcome house visitor or an over-strict teacher she would stand or walk behind them, echoing their movements, perfecting an innocent look when the victim wondered why bystanders were laughing.
It was when she stumbled as she followed a flustered supply teacher to a corner that she noticed the teacher also stumble and collide with a stack of chairs. Her curiosity piqued, further experimentation seemed to indicate to her quick mind a causal relationship. If while staring intently at the back of an adult’s neck she nodded her head, so did the perplexed adult. If, sitting behind a new pupil in assembly, she slapped her own forehead, so did the confused child in front of her. If, on the bus to the shopping centre with her mum she rubbed her chin vigorously, so did the smelly woman sitting two seats ahead of her.
She was a bright girl; she realised she could turn this ability to her advantage so she practised in secret, without anyone watching, till her usual audience forgot her original antics. Sitting in the window of the family’s front room she would gaze intently at passers-by, picking her nose or scratching at an imaginary itch, and was always rewarded by the resulting copycat reactions. And she practised and practised, convinced there would come a time when she could save the world or defeat a Dark Lord with her amazing superpower.
One day, into Minnie’s class came a new boy, Darren. She took an instant dislike to him. In assembly she was delighted to find she was sat on the floor in the row behind him. She waited for the right moment and then, staring hard at him, began to pinch her upper left arm really hard. But Darren didn’t oblige; instead he turned around to her; and on his face was what she knew from superhero movies to be a supervillain’s evil smile. He knew! Her eyes widened in sudden fear.
Then, as he watched her, he began, very deliberately, to scratch his cheeks with his nails, ugly red marks appearing on his skin. And there was a lurch in Minnie’s heart as she involuntarily raised her hands to her own face.
Another exercise for creative writing class, inviting participants to imagine an individual with a superpower. In response to a few requests I’ve now continued Minnie’s story to a suitable conclusion in a series of four consecutive posts; you’ll be pleased to know that this then constituted the full assignment I completed for the unit on writing short stories
Miss Turner was not very happy. In fact she was quite miserable. Her infant class was not respecting her, and it wasn’t just because she was covering for a popular teacher on maternity leave. She was having difficulty engaging with the majority of her charges largely because a few unruly pupils took up most of her attention. And, not helping at all, inexplicable things were happening to her, things like falling into a stack of storage boxes, or frantically scratching herself vigorously as though a packet of itching powder had been poured down the back of her blouse, or squirming uncomfortably in her seat for minutes on end when she was reading a story to the class.
And now it was happening again. That new boy, Darren – who looked like trouble the moment she set eyes on him – was not facing the front as he should be in assembly but distracting that girl behind him. Of course it had to be Minnie, the bane of her life, constantly the centre of the class’s attention but always looking so smugly innocent and smiley. Except now she was looking rather frightened. Click! Miss Turner snapped her fingers and gave the customary sharp shush! It had the required effect: Darren turned to the front, Minnie crumpled and the assembly continued as if nothing had happened.
But Miss Turner felt defeated; it was as if a great weight was pushing her shoulders down, squashing her frame. She struggled through assembly in a daze, hardly aware of shepherding her charges back to the classroom, or of learning assistants supervising the distrubution of reading books. What she was suddenly aware of, through a mist of tears, was a small figure in the corridor hugging her legs, gently rubbing the back of her thigh and going shhh, there-there as if to a baby. She was extremely surprised to see the figure below her was Minnie and — behind her – a curious but wary Darren, watching and alert and wide-eyed.
From then on things somehow improved. It was little things: pupils paying rapt attention to her instructions and leaping up to help hand things out without being asked, eager hands shooting up when there were questions to be answered and young voices joining in eagerly with songs and prayers. And she no longer felt anxious when Minnie or Darren watched her intently; she put it down to her increasing confidence that she no longer tripped over her feet or spilled the tray of learning materials in arithmetic. She began to feel good about herself; maybe she would apply for that permanent post once the maternity cover was up.
* * * * *
Minnie was slightly distraught when her new friend Darren moved to the parallel class in the new school year, but at least she got to see him at break and lunchtimes and when they went to play at each other’s houses at weekends and during holidays. There was nothing they liked better than dressing up as caped and masked superheroes and going out into the garden or to the park; here they zapped and postured and gestured to their hearts’ content but, luckily, with little discomfort to other people. Being children they naturally got their own back on bullies when the occasion demanded but ever since Miss Turner they’d developed a sense of justice and fair play. They worked on ever more inventive but subtle ways to right wrongs, wordlessly sharing sleights-of-hand and enjoying each other’s inventiveness.
Minnie’s parents were keen ComicCon fans, a passion Minnie shared, especially the dressing up. Darren too was often taken along to conventions, their favourite get-ups being characters from The Beano. Dennis the Menace* and Minnie the Minx had similar outfits – striped red and black sweaters or long-sleeved T-shirts with short black trousers – so the pair went dressed as the terrible twosome (Minnie of course with ginger plaits under the trademark beret). Here they caused as much mayhem as the characters they played but, past masters that they were, nobody ever suspected them of mishaps. For example, when passers-by unwittingly knocked over piles of paperbacks at book-signings, not once but several times, the two were just innocent bystanders; or when Darth Vader kept stumbling into the paths of oncoming fans (while simultaneously trying to maintain his dignity and awesomeness) Darren and Minnie were always several steps behind.
Naturally Minnie came to be known as ‘Minx’ by family and friends, though Darren ‘the Menace’ – rather quieter and less garrulous than Minnie – managed to keep his alter ego separate.
In their last years at primary school Minnie and Darren started making up their own comics. Darren was the main artist while Minnie authored and lettered the speech bubbles that emerged from characters’ mouths. This joint obsession began to nudge out practising their superpowers, though never entirely: their joint comic project — The Adventures of Psychic Man and Ghoul Girl (secret identities ‘Si Kick’ and ‘Grace Yard’) — was deeply informed by their own experiences.
Then came the bombshell: Darren’s family was upping sticks to move back to the Northeast of England. To her utter dismay Minnie suddenly found she had a bottomless hole inside her, am emotional whirlpool which sucked down the best of everything – friendliness, enthusiasm and happiness – and turned her remaining world into a mush of grey. Like porridge without any interesting bits.
Minnie’s parents were worried. They’d just come back from a parents evening with Minnie’s tutor Mr George. It was clear that Minnie’s inwardness and solitary habits, which they’d gradually got used to at home, was manifesting itself rather differently at her new secondary school. Here she’d become mute and withdrawn, and any attempt to draw her into social interactions had met with silent hostility. And it was getting worse.
“Jemima, er, Jasmine seems to be somehow causing disruption in every class she attends, but she’s never seen to be doing anything,” reported Mr George with obvious concern. “It’s like she’s the middle of a – well — a kind of whirlwind, but she’s the still centre of it. Other students seem to trip into each other in the aisle, or science equipment gets knocked off lab tops by elbows, or students who are friends with each other poke or slap each other. Jemima, um, just sits and twitches in her seat, or is a few feet away when a line of kids falls over like dominoes. I find it very puzzling, very worrying indeed. We just can’t put our finger on it.”
A very taciturn Minnie smouldered in her room when confronted by her parents. When they left a little while later an uneasy truce seemed to hold. Her mother later said she knew now what people meant when they said the atmosphere was electric. An hour or so after everyone had gone to bed bangs and crashes were heard downstairs. Her father, armed with a tennis racquet, stealthily entered the kitchen and narrowly missed being hit by a heavy plate falling off the dresser. The kitchen clock fell off the wall and the light – which he’d switched on as he went in – fizzed before exploding. He hastily shut the door and retreated into the hall. After several hair-raising minutes the sound of bumps came to a halt; cautiously peeking in he saw by the light of a torch that the kitchen table had moved and blocked the back door, and the cutlery drawer had emptied itself onto the floor.
There were no more manifestations that night but nobody slept a wink, even though the house was as silent as the grave.
* * * * *
Ms Runciman listened. “The priest we called in to exorcise the kitchen stayed in there for only three minutes. He’d fallen and gashed his head but wouldn’t stay to have it looked at. We had ghost hunters in after that but either they couldn’t get a reading or their machines stopped working. You’re our last hope, Ms Runciman: a friend said poltergeists were linked to young people entering, um, puberty and, um, we wondered …”
Ms Runciman did see Minnie, but it was neither in her certificate-lined office nor in Minnie’s bedroom; instead the two of them went off for a walk on the common. They were gone some time, long enough for Minnie’s parents to consider whether one or both had been abducted. Their return was eventually announced by the sound of excited chatter, the like of which Minnie’s parents realised they hadn’t heard since the last term of primary school. Minnie and Ms Runciman subsequently went for many more walks, and the child everybody once knew re-emerged from her cocoon like a new butterfly.
The poltergeist ceased its visits, replaced by the surprise appearance of Darren, whose family were on holiday from Newcastle. The two went for long walks, Ms Runciman often joining them along the way. When Darren returned to the Northeast the youngsters still kept in contact; and somehow it seemed that Minnie had turned a corner. At home she worked on graphic novels and at school regularly got top marks in English.
Her parents heaved a collective sigh of relief, finally able to pay more attention to Minnie’s older siblings. They didn’t really understand Ms Runciman’s report (which seemed to say very little but with very many long words) — they were just grateful some normality had returned.
A gaggle of excited teenagers chanted “Jas-mine! Jas-mine!” as she entered the convention hall. Afterwards there was a long queue in front of her desk, individuals clutching copies of her graphic novels along with special pens for signing. Just before the appointed time the arts reporter from the national broadsheet approached her desk; she was still inscribing copies for the last few eager fans. Minnie recognised the smug glassy smirk – she’d seen it enough times – and smiled her own secret smile.
“Hi, Julian Fortescue,” he said by way of introduction, placing his Dictaphone ostentatiously by the reducing pile of novels. It was only a matter of time, Minnie thought as he launched into his spiel. It wasn’t long coming.
“Don’t you think fantasy is a bit, well, the wrong thing to feed to young minds — y’know, putting impossible dreams into their heads? After all, it’s escapist in the final analysis when they should really be concentrating on getting good exam results and decent jobs, don’t you agree? It doesn’t, you know, put food in anyone’s belly and money in the bank – unless of course, haha, you’re a bestselling author!”
Here he laughed even more at his own joke.
* * * * *
Somehow he’d slipped and fallen on his back. One end of the trestle table had collapsed and the last few novels had fallen square onto his face. His Dictaphone had fallen off the dais and disappeared into a dark corner. Guffaws burst out from the remaining fans, Jasmine’s agent and the security staff who’d gathered round expectantly: they’d heard this sort of thing usually happened when Jasmine was confronted with unpleasant individuals.
After all, it was commonplace in The Minx — one of the most successful series of graphic novels to date — whenever a Dark Lord was involved.
Sophie Divry The Library of Unrequited Love
Translated from the French by Siân Reynolds
Maclehose Press 2014 (2013)
I wanted to describe the battle between order and disorder, between love and bitterness, between conservatism and revolution. Shouldn’t literature always try to answer these two questions: what does it mean to be human? What is life? — Sophie Divry
Here is a short fiction about books and book-lovers, libraries and librarians, infatuation and infuriation. And how can one not be drawn by a novel with this particular title? Especially one which has been reduced in a sale, with a recommendation from the bookshop assistant that he’d only taken a short while to read it? (Perhaps that’s why it was at a bargain price: it had been ‘pre-read’.)
Other than long-dead authors there’s only one name in this book: Martin. Martin is a serious scholar using the facilities of some municipal library in the Paris region, ensconcing himself in the Geography and Town Planning section (Dewey class 910) located in the basement. He is lusted after by a frustrated spinster librarian who is fascinated by his neck, like the spine of a book. On this occasion she has discovered a hapless reader who while asleep had been locked in by mistake overnight, and takes the opportunity before the building officially opens to the public by subjecting him to a rant. A rant which for approaching ninety pages is one long paragraph.