Midsummer madness: Brexit

Stop Exit Only

In general I try not to include anything too overtly political or religious in my blog as I know it can either cause offence or lead to fruitless argument as respective parties take up a stance one way or another. But the recent political earthquake in Britain — with its continuing aftershocks — has at the moment left me bereft of much enthusiasm for literary matters, at least until I begin to recover some equilibrium. Hence this exception to my rule.

I’ve already made some of my position clear in an earlier post “No Man is an Island” where I talked a bit about xenophobia. A Pandora’s Box has been well and truly opened now with the 52:48 vote in favour of Brexit: already racist attacks — mostly verbal so far — show a sudden and alarming rise, no doubt because many see the result as validating their appalling behaviour.

Just as alarming is the political vacuum that has emerged with the shock result. The so-called protest vote (at least a million but probably a lot more) that sought to punish certain Westminster politicians — the Prime Minister in particular — assumed from polling predictions that the Remain vote would, even if with a narrow margin, win the day. It only, as many are now acknowledging too late, pushed the Leave voters into the majority. But much more alarming is the meltdown that is happening in the two main parties, sidelining the issue of what happens now. The fact is that — with the leadership of both left and right parties being questioned — it is apparent that there is no Plan A, let alone a Plan B.

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Ego and Id

Mortimer and Arabel by Quentin Blake
Mortimer and Arabel as depicted by Quentin Blake

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.

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Return of the gentleman sleuth


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.

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Corbels and the Raven King

corbel grotesque
Corbel in the form of a grotesque, Quakers Friars, Broadmead, Bristol

Wandering among Words No 2: Corvid

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.

kilpeck corbelThe 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.

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Beyond superlative

Detail of raven from a print by Alison Fennell: “Constellation Raven”

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.

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Females with ASD

No. VI / Composition No.II 1920 Piet Mondrian 1872-1944 Purchased 1967 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00915 Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence
No. VI / Composition No.II (1920) by Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) Purchased 1967 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00915
Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licence

Sarah Hendrickx
Women and Girls with Autism Spectrum Disorder:
understanding life experiences from early childhood to old age

Foreword by Judith Gould
Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2015

Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them. http://www.autism.org.uk/about/what-is.aspx

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?

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A Faerie primer

The Three Graces from Botticelli’s Primavera (circa 1482) in the Uffizi, Florence

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.

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