All at sea

Christopher Priest: Inverted World
Introduction by Adam Roberts
Gollancz SF Masterworks 2010 (1974)

This is a beguiling read. We’re presented with so much in the way of supportive material, detailed ‘facts’ about what is happening, about what we’re supposed to be witnessing, and yet we are left doubting everything. Like the notional protagonist of the tale we are left — literally and figuratively — all at sea; and though it’s indicated at the end that the protagonist intends to return to shore, the reader is still left floundering.

The opening seems to suggest we’re on solid ground. Helward Mann lives in a city called Earth. It’s towed forward on rails towards and beyond what is declared an optimum point but cannot ever keep still; only apprentices in the various guilds that keep the city mobile are ever put in a position to understand why it’s imperative that the city moves and then they dare not ever contemplate any alternative. Much of the novel is told from Helward’s point of view, meaning that we are bound to accept his perception of what the truth of the matter is; but little by little, when our attention is shifted from Mann’s autobiography to a third-person narrative and to a outsider’s perspective, we realise that all is not as it seems.

I shall follow convention and not reveal the ‘twist’ that occurs towards the end, though to be honest it didn’t take much to fathom what the ‘reality’ of this future world was well before the final sections.

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A beautiful and terrible thing

J K Rowling: The Tales of Beedle the Bard.
Translated from the original runes by Hermione Granger
Bloomsbury 2008 (2007)

Here is a set of Chinese boxes, fitting intricately one inside the other. As the title implies, a fifteenth-century bard called Beedle is said to have written them down in runes, subsequently translated by “the brightest witch of her age,” Hermione Granger. The translation is itself nested within Albus Dumbledore’s footnotes, then bookended by Jo Rowling’s Introduction (the author added illustrations and additional footnotes) and by Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne’s missive about the Children’s High Level Group charity which supports over a quarter of a million vulnerable children in residential homes across Europe.

Bearing in mind the NGO’s compassionate aims it’s unsurprising that most of these five tales aren’t simply about fantasy or magic (though of course these are present); like many fairytales they are implicitly advocating charitable attitudes and ethical behaviour — in short, common humanity.

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A publishing scoundrel

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

Henry James: The Aspern Papers
Penguin Popular Classics 1994 (1888)

Miss Juliana Bordereau lives with her niece Miss Tina in a run-down Venetian palazzo; it is here that a literary researcher — nameless throughout this novella — manages to track the pair down and inveigle them into letting him stay as a lodger. His ulterior motive is to gain access to any papers rumoured to exist pertaining to the late American poet Jeffrey Aspern, all for eventual publication.

Nine chapters detail the narrator’s underhand machinations, first to pull to wool over the eyes of the elder Miss Bordereau and secondly to gain the confidence of Miss Tina. James conjures up a kind of apologue or moral fable from what initially appears to be a factual first-person account but which increasingly makes us suspect the researcher is an unreliable narrator.

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Ugly duckling to swan

“Shakespeare Droeshout 1623” by Martin Droeshout Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons http://shakespeare.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/files/2012/06/portrait-96-square.jpg

James Shapiro Contested Will:
Who Wrote Shakespeare? Faber and Faber 2010

Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James! — Ben Jonson

When I was nowt but a lad I read Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shakespeare (1910) in the school library, which is when I first came across the notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. According to Sir Edwin the plays are full of cryptic clues asserting that Francis Bacon used Will as a mask for writing all those plays. Typical is the nonsense word in Love’s Labour’s Lost, “honorificabilitudinitatibus,” which Durning-Lawrence claimed was an anagram in Latin for hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi (“these plays F Bacon’s offspring preserved for the world”). For an impressionable young mind there was much to mull over, but I wasn’t gullible enough to be convinced, and especially not by that coded ‘message’ — how many other phrases or sentences, in Latin or otherwise, can be concocted from that word?

Yet the fancy that Shakespeare was too much of a country bumpkin to be capable of writing such gems was one I was to come across again and again, with a bewildering array of candidates paraded for acceptance. Where was the comprehensive and informed rebuttal which would take all the claims seriously while marshalling killer counter-arguments?

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Home is where

Shelfie, Oxfam bookshop, Harrogate, North Yorkshire

“A House is Not a Home…” goes the song by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, and I think we can all agree with that. I’m sure that many of you have been in the position of having a few or even several abodes in your lifetime. Did all of them feel like home at the time?

What is it that makes a house a home? The lyrics of that song were clear: a house is not a home “when there’s no one there to hold you tight.” This is corroborated by the common saying that home is where the heart is, implying that this is where loved ones still live or even where one’s fondest memories reside. I think it’s impossible to underestimate the emotional pull that ‘home’ has over a mere dwelling place — think of a building and its associations are bound up with its actuality.

I’m occasionally asked where home is for me, and my stock response has usually been it’s here, where we live now. Certainly the four different properties we’ve lived in as owner-occupiers — where we raised a family, or worked from, or retired to — felt like, or still feels like, home at the time we were/are there.

But increasingly I find it’s not as complete an answer as I’ve glibly trotted out.

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Beautiful schooldays and friendships

Vintage postcard of Achensee, Tirol, Austria

Elinor M Brent-Dyer: The New House at the Chalet School
Collins 1980 (1935)

Head Girl Jo Bettany returns to the Chalet School for the summer term, her last one, only to find she is based at a newly built annexe called St Clare’s. It will prove a momentous term for her, involving victimisation but also strengthened friendships, near death and hilarious goings-on, midnight escapades and chance encounters.

Boarding schools have long been a staple of children’s fiction, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to the Harry Potter books, and enthralled authors such as Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens and Enid Blyton, to name writers from just the British canon. Elinor Brent-Dyer’s girls school was different: set up first in the Austrian Tyrol in the 1930s, it moved first to Guernsey and then to Herefordshire to escape the Nazis, next to Wales and then finally Switzerland in the 1950s.

Jo, the main focus of this particular title, happens to be the sister of the founder of this multinational establishment, but she will still have had to earn her place as Head Girl; no doubt this has been recounted in previous volumes, this being number 12 of some sixty volumes and published in 1935, three years before Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938. There is, however, no hint of such clouds on the horizon in these pages.

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No power upon the hour

My 1918 Pocket Library edition of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson: Fables
in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896)

THE PENITENT
A man met a lad weeping. “what do you weep for?”
“I am weeping for my sins,” said the lad.
“You must have little to do,” said the man.
The next day they met again. Once more the lad was weeping. “Why do you weep now?” asked the man.
“I am weeping because I have nothing to eat,” said the lad.
“I thought it would come to that,” said the man.

First published bundled up with Jekyll and Hyde by Longmans, Green and Company two years after Stevenson’s death, and then together in a pocket edition in 1906, this collection of literary fables ought to be better known than they are. Some, like ‘The Penitent’, are short, barely a page or two long, while others run to almost a dozen sides. Some are enigmatic, others cynical, others yet are Aesopian in that they feature animals, as in ‘The Tadpole and the Frog’:

“Be ashamed of yourself,” said the frog. “When I was a tadpole, I had no tail.”
“Just what I thought!” said the tadpole. “You never were a tadpole.”

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Somewhere at the edge of Europe

Cretan-labyrinth

China Miéville: The City and the City
Pan 2010 (2009)

Can cities really
co-exist in the same place?
Beware the frontier!

China Miéville’s preferred genre is ‘weird fiction’, and a sub-genre within that is urban fantasy. Kraken, for example, is set is a barely recognisable London, and the earlier The City and the City is set in the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, “somewhere at the edge of Europe”. Besźel and Ul Qoma aren’t quite like Buda and Pest, or Istanbul spread between Europe and Asia Minor, though they do share that sense of liminality, of neither-nor. And the dividing line between the two isn’t as physically evident as, say, the Danube or the Bosphorus: individuals who stray across (let alone stare across) that metaphysical divide, who literally “breach” (particularly in so-called “cross-hatched” areas), are likely to fall foul of a shadowy force called Breach.

Into this knife-edge world strides the Besz police inspector Borlú, investigating the murder of an unknown young woman.

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National Unicorn Day

Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinocerus (1515)

I’m sorry if you are offended by what I have to say, but I’m not a lover of kitsch. As today is apparently National Unicorn Day (at least in the UK) I thought I’d just mark it … but without the oodles of rainbow glitter that most seem now to be associating with this much maligned creature.

The celebration, we’re told, is being held this year on the 9th of April and is “dedicated to the respect and support of mythology [sic] and nonexistent creatures”. My thoughts on mythological and nonexistent creatures are briefly summed up in this review, but I’m not totally allergic to fiction featuring the one-horned creature (for example, Peter Dickinson’s The Ropemaker, reviewed here).

And of course, my own avatar is of a unicorn in a warning triangle — a tip-off that some fantasy may be met in the blog — though it’s entirely a coincidence that I currently happen to sing in a local a cappella group (specialising in medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music) called … the Unicorn Singers.

Are you celebrating this day? Or were you as unaware of it as I was until I looked at social media?

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Fellow travellers

Ideogram of lift or, if you prefer, elevator. Looks like a man has, again, assumed it’s his job to control things …

My relationship with books is a bit like that one has with passengers in a slow-moving lift, a relationship which is perfectly illustrated by a visit to my bedside table. Here, alongside reading glasses and case, watch, alarm clock, notebook and pen sit a couple of piles of books. (We won’t talk, just now, of the ones that sit out of sight in the top drawer.) I’m a rather faithless reader, picking up books that take my fancy, sometimes sticking with one for the duration but mostly flitting from one to another. I like to pretend that I do this because different titles advantageously inform each other; but it may simply be that I have a goldfish brain, unable to sustain a thought for long.

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Altered state alter ego

Houses in Moray Place, Edinburgh (“Auld Reekie”), in 2018. Stevenson lived for nearly three decades in Heriot Row, just off Moray Place

Robert Louis Stevenson:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896, 1885)

My memory of reading this as a teenager focuses almost entirely on the one shockingly violent scene in this novella, the one where Edward Hyde viciously attacks a prominent Parliamentarian in a London street. In my immature haste to get to the action I had clearly bypassed all the diversions — the discussions, the dialogues and the descriptions — as irrelevant waffle. For years I laboured under the impression that Hyde continued to roam the back alleys of the capital after story’s end, causing mayhem and fear. I long wondered if I’d confused elements of this tale with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (which was in fact published five years after this, in 1890) or a title by Arthur Machen concerning flâneurs in London (such as The Hill of Dreams, 1907).

In truth, Jekyll and Hyde plays on the meme of a dismal, foggy London in which dark deeds occur in side streets, a meme which every fin de siècle and early 20th-century novel exhibits, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and beyond. It is the epitome of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, the notion that nature echoes the human spirit when it is actually the reverse: London’s habitual murky darkness is merely a metaphor for human depravity, if anything the cause not the effect.

My younger self then was not in sympathy with how atmosphere was created and developed in a novel; but I hoped the passage of years would allow me now to enjoy the slow build-up to a dénouement that only a reader reared in complete isolation could be in ignorance of.

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Words matter

The goddess Ostara or Eostre by Johannes Gehrts (1884)

Happy Easter!

No, I’ve not gone all conventionally religious. You no doubt know that Easter wasn’t originally a Christian feast but a pagan one. Nearly a millennium and a half ago the Venerable Bede derived the Anglo-Saxon word for April — Eosturmonath or ‘Easter-month’ — from a celebration of the goddess Eostre, the latter probably an ancient divinity symbolising dawn and fertility and therefore extremely apt for the season. As are eggs, daffodils, chicks, lambs and rabbits. You see, words matter.

You may remember, in the immediate wake of the EU Referendum, a ridiculous suggestion that the mottoes Dieu et Mon Droit and Honi soit qui mal y pense be removed from the new British passports on the grounds that they were in French (https://petition.parliament.uk/archived/petitions/163824). Yes, even with Brexiteers words matter, though in this case they blew up in the would be petitioner’s face.

You may or may not be pleased to know that the petition to Parliament fell far short of the 10000 signatures required to trigger a debate. Maybe it was down to the counter arguments that words like ‘passport’ were themselves of French or Latin origin, as are all the words below in bold:

The vote to leave the EU means people voted to Take Back Control. Control of their borders, their culture and their language. Whether ‘Dieu et mon droit’ and ‘Honi qui mal y pense’ have existed as mottos in England for ages is irrelevant. French is an EU language and has no place on a UK passport.

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