A Matter of Lives and DEATH

dwjmonth-2017

Over at Kristen’s We Be Reading blog the annual March Magics celebration of the work of Diana Wynne Jones — to which was recently added the fiction of Sir Terry Pratchett — will be observed, starting tomorrow. Both authors, giants in their respected fantasy fields, are much missed by their legions of fans (a cliché, I know, but they are legion). As Kristen writes,

DWJ March began in March 2012 as a celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and last year I added Terry Pratchett as he had passed the year before. I changed the name to March Magics but a few of us didn’t want to let go of the DWJ March name so now it kind of has two names. I guess this is the 6th year of the event!

Kristen tells us she has for a while wanted to focus DWJ March on the figure of the enchanter Chrestomanci; of the seven books in the series she omits The Magicians of Caprona, Witch Week and the short story collection Mixed Magics only because they’re not directly about nine-lived enchanters. (Like cats, since you were wondering.)

She will pair these up with four of Pratchett’s five DEATH books (omitting Hogfather since she will be featuring it on her blog in December). I’ve already read and reviewed the Chrestomanci novels, plus one of the Pratchett titles, so shall instead be concentrating on the three Discworld novels featuring DEATH I haven’t as yet tried, Reaper Man, Soul Music and The Thief of Time — if I can acquire them in time!

The schedule, should you wish to join in, will be as follows (I’ve added links to my reviews where applicable):

Friday 3rd: DWJ’s Charmed Life review

Monday 6th: STP’s Mort review

Friday 10th: DWJ’s The Lives of Christopher Chant review

Tuesday 14th: STP’s Reaper Man

Friday 17th: DWJ’s Conrad’s Fate review

Wednesday 22nd: STP’s Soul Music

Sunday 26th: DWJ’s The Pinhoe Egg review

Friday 31st: STP’s The Thief of Time

I’m being selfish here: I need excuses to read Pratchett’s work but the sheer volume of his oeuvre is so daunting. I’ve read a collection of his non-fiction pieces, the aforementioned Mort, Equal Rites, Johnny and the Dead and Good Omens (which he co-authored with Neil Gaiman) but would really like to get on with more Discworld novels. I have The Colour of Magic on my shelves but am loath to start this as I’ve been warned off it a couple of times. (In a nice way, not with a horse’s head in the bed or anything like that.) So the three March Magics titles noted above may be just up my Ankh.

Bibliophile’s Progress

Bookshelves in secondhand bookshop, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire
Bookshelves in secondhand bookshop, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire

Actually, this title’s a sprat to catch a mackerel: my reading progress appears to have been minimal this month, as you may have noticed from my February posts. I’ve read a couple of kids’ books (one of which was a reread and actually completed in January), a non-fiction history (granted, it’s over 500 pages of smallish print) and a modern take on the Alice books; and I’ve started a couple of classics. That’s still barely one a week.

True, I’ve been involved in other matters, mostly musical — choral singing (a scratch Mozart Requiem as well as a scratch Mahler Resurrection Symphony for example) and piano accompanying — but that shouldn’t really have impinged much on reading time, though it did reduce the time I might’ve dedicated to composing posts.

But, really, what I should be considering is less progress than process.

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New Cumbria (3)

Sydney Hotel and pleasure gardens, Bath
Sydney Hotel and pleasure gardens, Bath

Dido Twite has been doing a lot of travelling, first on a British naval ship from Nantucket to Tenby, and then by riverboat and railway to Bath Regis. Why Joan Aiken chose to bring her young heroine here is complex — I’ve discussed some of the background elsewhere — but as this is the most involved part of the story in The Stolen Lake where geography is concerned it’s only right that I outline, in greater detail and in a separate post, how matters stand.

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New Cumbria (2)

Aerial view of Aconcagua, Argentina, the highest summit in the Andes, by Beatriz Moisset [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Aerial view of Aconcagua, Argentina, at nearly 7000 metres the highest summit in the Andes. Credit: Beatriz Moisset [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Yet more now on Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake, to the possible delight of fans of the Wolves Chronicles and the certain dismay of everyone else.

We left Dido Twite at the port of Tenby, at the mouth of the River Severn in Roman America. (New readers will no doubt be confused so it’s best they consult the previous post to discover what exactly is going on. Otherwise this post will make little or no sense.) Tenby being the only entry to New Cumbria, it will require a journey of some 200 miles to get to the country’s capital, Bath Regis. But trying to relate Roman America to its model, Latin America, will prove rather difficult — distances simply refuse to tally up — and therefore all linear measurements will need to be taken with a exceptionally liberal pinch of salt.

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New Cumbria (1)

A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire
A stepped street in Tenby, Pembrokeshire

It’s time for another update on the world of Dido Twite according to the account in Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake. We’ve had an overview, and we’ve looked at the main personages (the ‘who’) and the timeline of the narrative (the ‘when’). It remains for us to examines the themes that the author touches on (the ‘what’), but right now we’re going to look at the novel’s geography (the ‘where’).

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Rapier wit

Tongue firmly lodged in cheek:

Zenrinji

crosswordblank

If ever forced to try out swordplay
I’d fail to be a Cyrano.
And as for impro wordplay,
expecting puns? Oh, sirrah, no!

Clash of steel best fitting crossed swords
(whether epées, foils or rapiers),
flash of real wit suiting crosswords
(often met in broadsheet papers):

all would go from bad to worse
(same as when I’m writing verse).
I’m as like to win a duel as
write a gem fit for a jeweller’s.

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Utterly charming

Still from Emil und die Detektive (1931) showing the man in the bowler hat being shadowed by the 'detectives'
Still from Emil und die Detektive (1931) showing the man in the bowler hat being shadowed

Erich Kästner: Emil and the Detectives
Translated from the German by Eileen Hall
Illustrated by Walter Trier

Vintage Classics 2012
(English translation 1959; Emil und die Detektive was first published in 1929)

 It’s wonderful that this slight novel, nearly ninety years old now, is still a delight and a joy to read. Firstly, it goes clean against most of the highly didactic juvenile fiction of the day: the moral, such as it is, is directed to the grown-ups and not the young:

‘So you don’t think there’s anything to be learnt from all that’s happened?’ said Aunt Martha. ‘Money should always be sent through the post!’ said Grandma, with a merry, tinkling laugh.

Secondly, the pace and all the details are perfect. Things are described, things happen, they lead on to the next bit of action and so on; the suspense is maintained but is never unbearable; and there are no tricksy denouements as pretty much all the clues have been clearly and carefully signposted. The protagonist is both polite and likeable but not without mischief, and thus easy to identify with. While this is ostensibly a boy’s story, the adult females are strong characters, and the one girl to appear is especially proactive. I defy anyone not to be utterly charmed by this tale, its humour and its evocation of what it is to be young.

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In praise of political correctness

hate-week
Still from the 1956 film adaptation of Orwell’s 1984

Political correctness gone mad.

How many times have you heard this phrase? Me, I’ve lost count, but I could almost guarantee that the person speaking it has it in mind to say something outrageous about how wrong it is to try to be a decent human being. (It’s the same as when somebody declares, “I’m not racist, but …” — though, regretfully, that’s a topic for another time.)

Here are two definitions I’ve culled from the ether of political correctness which to me reflect the original concept of the phrase:

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Where was The Shire?

Black Mountains
Black Mountains above Crickhowell, Powys, with Table Mountain’s silhouette on the right

Harken, friends of Halflings, I have a question! But before I ask it, let me lay bare the background.

Here in the Black Mountains of Wales, in the Vale of the Usk, there is a popular local tradition that J R R Tolkien was inspired by the local scenery and placenames to borrow several locations, thinly disguised, for his vision of the Shire in Middle Earth. Among the several places I’ve either seen or heard touted are Buckland near Brecon, Llangattock Mountain north of the South Wales Valleys, Sugar Loaf Mountain by Abergavenny, and Crickhowell, all in this southeastern corner of Wales.

For example, as part of the annual Crickhowell Walking Festival (“Now in its 10th year!”) is a walk which is described thus: A Walk Through Tolkien’s Shire.

Crickhowell is thought to be the inspiration for “Crickhollow” village in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit”.

Of course you will immediately note several objections to this statement. The phrase “is thought” is a wonderful catch-all: no reference, no evidence, and no doubt easy to conclude that it is the actual inspiration. Secondly, Crickhollow is not mentioned in The Hobbit, though it does appear in The Lord of the Rings. Thirdly, it is not a village. In Chapter V of The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ we’re told that Crickhollow is “Frodo’s new house”:

It was an old-fashioned countrified house, as much like a hobbit-hole as possible: it was long and low, with no upper storey; and it had a roof of turf, round windows, and a large door.

Let’s put these objections aside for the moment as probable misrememberings. Here is my actual question, and I’m genuinely interested in the answer: Did Tolkien actually visit this part of Wales? And where might I find the evidence? (Yes, I know technically that’s two questions, but they are inter-related!) Only then can we evaluate whether south Powys has a genuine claim to be a model for the Shire.

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Miss Pittikin Pattikin and others

Capriccio with a British man-o-war(c) Essex County Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
John Thomas Serres (1759–1825) Capriccio with a British man-o-war (© Essex County Council; supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation)

Another post looking at the background to Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake (1981) with its wonderful amalgam of history, alternate history, legend and whimsy. This one will look at the persons mentioned in the novel, saying who they are, what they do and, in some cases, why they may have been given the names they have; discussion follows below.

As I’ve found, Joan’s whimsical-looking names aren’t always what they appear, and there’s often a logical reason for why they’re applied to a particular character.

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The future now

nikola-tesla
Nikola Tesla 1856 – 1943

Inverted Commas 1: The modern world viewed from 1926

When wireless is perfectly applied, the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain. We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance.

Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.

We shall be able to witness and hear events — the inauguration of a President, the playing of a World Series game, the havoc of an earthquake or the terror of a battle — just as though we were present.

Nikola Tesla’s prescient prediction of the internet, skype, the mobile phone (or cellphone) and live reporting — and all this in 1926, ninety-one years ago.

nikolatesla

Sadly not all his predictions have come true, for example:

International boundaries will be largely obliterated and a great step will be made toward the unification and harmonious existence of the various races inhabiting the globe.

And why we are still waiting for this?

It is clear to any trained observer, and even to the sociologically untrained, that a new attitude toward sex discrimination has come over the world through the centuries, receiving an abrupt stimulus just before and after the [First] World War.

This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior.  The modern woman, who anticipates in merely superficial phenomena the advancement of her sex, is but a surface symptom of something deeper and more potent fermenting in the bosom of the race.

It is not in the shallow physical imitation of men that women will assert first their equality and later their superiority, but in the awakening of the intellect of women.

Through countless generations, from the very beginning, the social subservience of women resulted naturally in the partial atrophy or at least the hereditary suspension of mental qualities which we now know the female sex to be endowed with no less than men.

  • John B Kennedy, “When Woman Is Boss: An Interview with Nikola Tesla,” Collier’s, January 30th, 1926;
    cited in Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: the legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently, 2015;
    whole text at http://www.tfcbooks.com/tesla/1926-01-30.htm [accessed February 2nd 2017]

Inverted commas will be another occasional series, this time of quotations that strike me as appealing, intriguing or apposite.

nikola-tesla-company

Time and tide

Blenkinsop's rack locomotive (1812) (credit: British Railway Locomotives 1803-1853, public domain)
Blenkinsop’s rack locomotive (1812) (credit: British Railway Locomotives 1803-1853, public domain)

Following a review of Joan Aiken’s The Stolen Lake comes this, the first of a series of posts looking at various aspects of Dido Twite’s adventures in South America. Here we will look at the chronology of the tale, touching on one or two other aspects to clarify the undoubted differences between Dido’s world and ours. Please look away now if you don’t want to know plot details …

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What is truth?

pravda
The original banner title of Pravda, the Russian Communist Party newspaper

If — somehow or other — you’ve missed it, there has been much in the news and elsewhere about truth, post-truth and fake news. This concern with what counts as fact, what is factoid and what is downright lies is nothing new, nor is the dissembling that goes along with it, though it’s certainly been in very sharp focus in recent days, weeks and months. Here are ten quotes or thoughts about Truth, offered in the hopes of clarity:

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