Chalking it up to experience

Detail from Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke (1855–64) in Tate Britain

Terry Pratchett: The Wee Free Men
Illustrated by Paul Kidby
Corgi 2012 (2003)

‘The thing about witchcraft,’ said Mistress Weatherwax, ‘is that it’s not like school at all. First you get the test, and then afterwards you spend years findin’ out how you passed it. It’s a bit like life in that respect.’

Terry Pratchett listed his recreation on Who’s Who as “Letting the mind wander” — which is as good a description of young witch Tiffany Aching’s hobby in The Wee Free Men as any. Better, in fact, since Tiffany’s thoughts and experiences are loosely based on Pratchett’s own early memories of growing up.

Tiffany’s story is set on the Chalk, an allusion to Pratchett’s adopted county of Wiltshire — where he finally settled, near Salisbury and not far from Stonehenge. You won’t be surprised to know that trilithons like those of the monument feature in The Wee Free Men, nor that wandering shepherds and their sheep, once a common sight on the Wilshire downs, are also a prominent motif in the novel.

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Wishing wells and votive offerings

Mammoth and capricorns from Rouffignac (image public domain)

In the Southwest of France, the town of Rouffignac boasts a ‘cave of a hundred mammoths’. Or rather representations of them drawn or engraved on the walls and ceilings. Nowadays the visitor travels one kilometre underground on a small electric train. Every now and then there are isolated mammoths on the walls and claw marks of cave bears on the ceiling; the latter, luckily, are not contemporary with the artists. Suddenly the train stops and there they are, a multitude of mammoths, horses, bison and other horned animals covering the vault of a low ceiling. One horse is about eight feet across. The artist or artists delineating it, lying on the floor about three feet below (as it then was) would not have been able to appreciate it all. It is all breathtaking, simple but effective.

Why did prehistoric people travel so far underground to create pictures they could not enjoy in their entirety? The answer is close at hand: a large, natural but uneven pit descends below the cavern’s floor. From here, no doubt, the deities of the underworld could emerge to appreciate the artistic offerings of humankind and grant the wishes that accompanied them.

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Raven mad

Mortimer and Arabel by Quentin Blake

Joan Aiken: Arabel, Mortimer and the Escaped Black Mamba
Illustrated by Quentin Blake
Barn Owl Books 2002 (1973)

Chris Cross comes to babysit preschooler Arabel Jones and her pet raven Mortimer but, this being an Arabel and Mortimer book, mayhem naturally ensues. The comedy of errors plays itself out, of course, and all’s well that ends well, but potential tragedy stalks our hapless innocents because this, after all, is a Joan Aiken book. Does it explain anything that there is no actual black mamba involved?

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Spellbound

Horatio Clare: Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot
Illustrated by Jane Matthews
Firefly Press 2015

An only child, Aubrey lives with his parents in a small town somewhere in mainland Britain. From birth he has proved himself outstanding in refusing to live down to expectations, and gets on with doing things which aren’t always beyond his capabilities. Until the day that he becomes convinced that his father has been put under a spell. Followed soon after by realising he can talk to animals.

I can’t emphasise how much I enjoyed this children’s book, focused on a rambunctious boy. (You knew, of course, that rambunctious means someone who is uncontrollably exuberant or boisterous!) The spell Aubrey’s father has fallen under is depression, a state that does indeed often feel like some kind of curse called down by some malevolent being. Often depression is characterised as a black dog, but Aubrey is a boy with little time for clichés — he discovers that his father is preyed on by the Terrible Yoot.

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Bittersweet

Cleveland, Ohio in the 1920s

F Scott Fitzgerald:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Other Stories
Penguin Books 2010 (2008)

This selection of seven short stories, which includes pieces published in 1920 and 1922, plus one from 1932, was issued to coincide with the title story’s appearance as an Oscar-nominated film. Written in the interwar period often termed the Jazz Age, their abiding scent is bittersweet, an adjective frequently applied to Fitzgerald’s work (though I have to confess this is my first ever taste of it). Despite in most cases their being almost a hundred years old the whiff of nostalgia is often overwhelmed by the smells of busy streets, the tang of disappointed relationships and the stench of hypocrisy (which is an everlasting odour).

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Hibernation ends

This is a brief shout-out for Zenrinji, a sister blog dedicated to short form creative writing. This includes examples of haiku and senryu (Japanese micropoetry that partly inspired the name of the blog), limericks and doggerel of various kinds; and also so-called flash fiction, which features short stories of varied length but mostly under about 200 words, along with choice quotes and maybe even the occasional piquant observation!

Zenrinji has been brought out of a summer hibernation (just in time for the winter months, as it happens) but I aim to be less ambitious than when I started it: a haiku a day was the original description, but that discipline soon fell by the wayside.

Background to the blog can be found here https://zenrinji.wordpress.com/about/ but feel free to comment, positively or otherwise; that way I won’t feel I’m broadcasting out into the farthest reaches of space as my personal contribution to the CETI project.*


* Communication with extraterrestrial intelligence

Playacting

Dodie Smith: It Ends with Revelations
Corsair 2012 (1967)

July 1967. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 was passed in England and Wales, decriminalising homosexual acts between consenting males aged 21 and over. In the same year Dodie Smith, now aged 71, published It Ends with Revelations (this title a quote from Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance), a novel which has homosexuality as one of its main themes. Fifty years later Smith’s novel has some curiosity value — a rather strange period read — considering gay marriage is now legal in Britain. To me it also reflects the ambivalence of the times: even at the height of the Swinging Sixties (the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released) Britain’s ruling institutions still retained a reactionary prewar attitude to personal behaviour, and Smith’s novel rather uncomfortably straddles that transition period.

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What he’d learned

A piece of flash fiction on sister blog Zenrinji, written as an exercise for a creative writing class

Zenrinji

Not long ago – it may be yesterday – there were two children called Alice and Bran. Now Alice and Bran lived in the last house at the end of the estate on the outskirts of a large town. You won’t have heard of this town, so it probably doesn’t matter what it’s called. Every day, Alice and Bran’s parents drove to work in the town and Alice and Bran caught to bus to school. At the end of the day they all came back home, did what they had to do and then went to bed.

On the other side of their house was a wood. Alice and Bran were told never to go into the wood because it was dangerous and you could lose yourself, so they never did. Instead, if ever they went for a walk they took their dog Cerberus around the estate and then came…

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A dark tale for a dark age

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
Faber & Faber 2016 (2015)

It’s extraordinary that for a book with this title the only real mention of a burial place for such a fearsome creature comes very late in the book, and yet the reader gets the feeling that this novel is not really about this giant but another, one which is undefined, amorphous. Then there is the inkling, occasioning a little brow-wrinkling, that what the book itself is about is also shapeless and unclear. And hard on that thought’s heels comes the unbidden suspicion — is The Buried Giant a literary case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Is the author, just newly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, offering us something of no real substance, stringing us a line, pulling the wool over our eyes?

This is an ignoble thought, and yet one that must have struck many a reader puzzled over the point of this novel. Yes, there are a few obvious themes — about ageing, about faithful love, about communal forgetfulness and a pathological hatred of outsiders — but as these are explicitly described can there be deeper meanings that elude us? And if there aren’t, is this tale then just an extended parable with no inherent merit?

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Innocence and inanity

A literal translation of Môr a Mynydd o Lyfrau might be “sea and mountain (made) from books”

Bruno Vincent: Five Go Bookselling
Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups
Hodder and Stoughton 2017

Maybe you missed it but Saturday 7th October 2017 was Bookshop Day in the UK and Ireland. I was involved in the third Crickhowell Literary Festival so I could hardly be unaware of it. I picked up this bit of free promotional material to see if I’d changed my mind about this expanding series of “Enid Blyton for Grown-Ups”. I found I had not.

Following on from Penguin Books’ re-vision of the classic children’s mid-20th-century Ladybird picture books allied with cynical new texts (on Mindfulness, The Mid-Life Crisis and the like) Hodder and Stoughton sought to cash in on this nostalgia trend with their updating of the Famous Five books. Do they work?

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A Week in Provence

The statue of Cézanne that stands near the modern hub of Aix-en-Provence: he looks towards Mont Sainte-Victoire while nursing an empty bottle some wag has left for him

Maryse Joissains Masini et al (editors)
Les Architectes et la Ville
Livret des Journées Européennes du Patrimoine
Aix-en-Provence et Pays D’Aix

In mid-September the city of Aix-en-Provence and its hinterland hosted a long weekend dedicated to the architecture of the region, ranging from the Gaulish oppidum (the precursor to the Roman town of Aquae Sextius) to 21st-century structures that housed both people and the culture for which Aix is famous. We missed this celebration by a week but, with the help of a booklet in French produced for the occasion and aimed towards students, we were able to explore the city’s historic delights in between enjoying the modern successor to the Roman baths. Aix is most famous for Paul Cézanne but there is more to this ancient provincial capital than its most renowned inhabitant.

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Questions and quests

An imaginary city by Albrecht Durer

Patricia A McKillip: The Riddle-Master’s Game
The Riddle-Master of Hed (1976);  Heir of Sea and Fire (1977);
Harpist in the Wind (1979)
Introduction by Graham Sleight
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2015 (2001)

Explicitly inspired by — but no slavish imitation of — The Lord of the Rings, Patricia McKillip’s trilogy is an epic fantasy that stands on its own merits rather than in comparison with Tolkien’s work. Yes, it starts with a very domestic scene before exploring from one end of a continent to the other, and, indeed, the main protagonist is reluctant to embark on his quest, but in reality the whole feel and mood of McKillip’s narrative is far removed from Tolkien’s, not least because it gives almost equal prominence to a female protagonist. On top of this, the author was only in her late twenties when she began her very mature epic when compared to Tolkien, who was in his sixties when the final volume of LOTR appeared.

The first part begins portentously enough:

“Morgon of Hed met the High One’s harpist one autumn day when the trade-ships docked at Tol for the season’s exchange of goods.”

In one sentence we are introduced to many of the main themes that run through the trilogy. Morgon, Prince of the small island principality of Hed, the High One who has (or rather had) suzerainty over all the lands, the subtle undercurrent of music (the author is apparently an accomplished pianist), the passing of seasons and the routines of social intercourse that will be so rudely disrupted. The young ruler, who had studied and attained high honours in the arcane discipline of riddling, will find not just his heritage challenged as he is plunged into dangers that will threaten the lives of countless peoples. Will he have the strength of will to overcome those dangers, and what part will Raederle of An have to play in the upheavals to come?

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Last of the summer.* Sigh.

Looking up from square in Aix en Provence

A change is as good as a rest, they say, and in my case the rest and the change coincided. Eurostar took us all the way to Marseille, and a week exploring the historic and cultural heart of Aix-en-Provence — when we weren’t swimming in an hotel spa pool in the late summer sunshine — has recharged mental and physical batteries in just the way we hoped.

And now it’s back to more mental stimulation as the third Crickhowell Literary Festival kicks off. Details of what’s on offer this week is on the website here and I’ll no doubt summarise in time what I will have attended in my capacity as steward or as punter. As I look back at the month I see that I’ve been more busy on the literary front than I thought.

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