Joan Aiken Mortimer’s Tie Illustrated by Quentin Blake
BBC Publications 1976
The fourth of Joan Aiken’s Arabel and Mortimer books, Mortimer’s Tie is also the first I’ve ever read, but not being acquainted with what preceded the events here was, I felt, no barrier to following what was happening. And what a lot happens! You don’t need to know quite how Arabel (who is “still too young for school”) acquires her pet raven Mortimer, you just need to know what results when the corvid is introduced into a human environment. One word: chaos.
Kathryn L Ramage The Abrupt Disappearance of Cousin Wilfrid Storylandia, The Wapshott Journal of Fiction Issue 16
The Wapshott Press, Summer 2015
When the Great War began in the summer of 1914, I was a boy of eighteen. Like so many boys of my age, I was eager to go and fight. We saw it as a grand opportunity for adventure, as well as a chance to do a fine and noble thing. Dulce et decorum est … but none of us believed we would be the ones to die for our country. We couldn’t possibly imagine how many of our number would die. We couldn’t foresee that we would return to —
Kathryn Ramage’s Death Among the Marshes introduced us to Frederick Babington, gentleman sleuth with a twist. Traumatised by the war (as the beginning of his memoir hints) he had no doubt hoped to find a return to normality — or at least sanity — but tragedy still dogged him when deaths among his landed gentry family threw suspicion on all and sundry. In a bid to escape the guilt that had resulted from his ‘bungled’ attempts to solve mysteries he goes to Abbotshill between Ipswich and Stowmarket to reassure his Aunt Dorothea: she is being pestered by Freddie’s cousin Wilfrid and his mother Lydia who dispute she has a right to Abbotshill House.
When Wilfrid quarrels with Freddie too, and it subsequently turns out that he has had altercations with others in the extended family, things look increasingly suspicious when the black sheep of the family then disappears. Has he simply gone away in high dudgeon or has he been done away with? Enquiries by the local police and by Freddie seem to highlight plenty of individuals with possible motives for seeing Wilfrid out of the picture, but until a body turns up no answers can be arrived at. Then a body does turn up, but it isn’t Wilfrid’s.
You will often find them if you glance above you in a medieval church, high up on nave or chancel walls. Corbels are those stone brackets that project from the wall; they were designed to support a cornice, or more often the springing of an arch that rises like a slender tree trunk, curving and sprouting liernes to join other stone ribs so as to form a tracery of slender branches, supporting in their turn the distant vault.
They’re the counterpart of the capitals on freestanding pillars, those stone approximations of mighty trees; the capitals are sometimes plain (like Doric capitals) or abstract (like the ‘eyes’ on Ionic capitals) or even representational (as with the foliage on Corinthian capitals). Romanesque masons had fun carving shapes out of them: amongst them we might observe a grotesque face or an acrobatic exhibitionist, a shiela-na-gig or an angel, maybe even a foliate head or Green Man.
The name however comes via French (corbeau means crow) from the Latin corvellus, a little raven. Supposedly the corbel’s shape resembles a crow, raven or even a beak, but I don’t see it myself; and in a quick scan of my books on Romanesque sculpture and online I’ve come across precious few beaked carvings (Kilpeck church in Herefordshire has one such, a splendid beaked monster).
Be that as it may, the Latin corvus has supplied the collective term for the crow family: corvid. In Britain this family is represented by the raven, the carrion crow, the rook, the chough and the jackdaw — all predominantly black — while the magpie and the jay each have a more motley plumage. All have fascinating stories to tell.
Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Bloomsbury 2007 (2005)
Here is a homage to Regency literature that surpasses mere pastiche. Here is an alternate history that makes one doubt the history one knows. Here too is a fantasy for those who hate fantasy. Here, in short, is great literature — involving as well as immersive, and above all beautifully written. It certainly deserves its accolades, both public and individual.
This is a story about the revival of English magic in the early 19th century brought about by the foremost magicians of the age. This is also a story about the dangers attached to re-awakening dormant forces that one may not understand, let alone control. All those Arabian Nights stories about the perils of letting the genie out of the bottle or of unwittingly killing the genie’s son by carelessly discarding date stones are reminders that fairy folk and their peers are not to be trifled with unless you know what you’re letting yourself in for. So it proves for Gilbert Norrell and for his pupil Jonathan Strange.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was for long considered a condition solely characteristic of males, but thankfully it is now recognised that girls and women get it too. That not all professionals are up to speed on this is illustrated by the author’s own experience: only recently diagnosed herself (and this after several years studying the condition closely) she found to her distress a male clinician not only incredulous that a woman could have ASD but also questioning the reliability of the diagnosis. For females however there are many differences in their manifestation of the condition; because diagnosis of autism was traditionally based on male behaviour patterns, female presentation of those behaviours didn’t necessarily conform to male norms. In addition many females soon learn — usually better than males — how to play the game when it comes to social expectations, and this can mask their underlying condition.
But the crucial point to make is that women and girls are statistically just as likely to have the condition, and Hendrickx’s work aims to contribute to the pressing need for an “account of the female phenotype to better identify and help ASD females.” In her own case despite an IQ of over 150 and years of being a consultant on ASD (not to mention a parallel career as a stand-up) she still came late to a diagnosis; how much more pressing must it be for females who have felt they were different from what scientists call a neurotypical (NT) population but had never been in a position to establish why?
Susanna Clarke The Ladies of Grace Adieu Illustrated by Charles Vess
Bloomsbury 2007 (2006)
I have quite a few illustrated reprints of 19th- and early 20th-century folk- and fairy-tale collections on my shelves, some even facsimiles of the originals, and so this collection of short stories by the author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in many ways seemed familiar. Not only were the Charles Vess illustrations deliberately reminiscent of those of Arthur Rackham and his ilk, but the writing often recalled antiquarian texts with the occasional scholarly footnotes. In fact I was often reminded of the ghost stories of M R James in that they seemed as if written by an earlier avatar of that academic.
Above all, of course, the style was unmistakably that of Susanna Clarke’s own magnificent debut novel with its Regency aesthetic and period spelling — and no worse for that. That this collection has been compared unfavourably with that doorstopper of a fantasy is unfortunate since it should be judged solely as a group of short fictions: as such it is much more successful than many an uneven selection of miscellaneous tales, even those by a single author.
Imagine the scene: it is Christmas Eve, the date for the traditional Mince-pie Ceremony at Battersea Castle. An unfamiliar London custom? It’s not surprising as this is 1833 in the alternate history of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, also known as the James III sequence. James III is the Stuart monarch and he has travelled by sled from Hampton Court to be at the ceremony. On the frozen Thames.
If that seems unlikely, consider this: for two centuries we had a Little Ice Age when rivers regularly froze over. So deep and long lasting were these conditions that Frost Fairs were held on the Thames, when it was even possible to light bonfires on the ice without repercussions. The last great frost fair occurred during the winter of 1813 to 1814. A famous print shows people and tents on the ice: to the left is Three Cranes Wharf near Blackfriars in the City, and in the distance we see a bridge with around twenty stone piers; this must be Old London Bridge (Southwark Bridge wasn’t built till 1819) which had had its old houses and shops demolished in the mid 18th century.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Black Hearts in Battersea begins one “fine warm evening in late summer” with Simon leading his donkey over Southwark Bridge in London. Joan Aiken isn’t more specific than this so I’m guessing this might be at the tail-end of August. Alternatively it may be that late September is the period she means. Why? Here’s my thinking.
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.