An end in sight

As we start to pass through the portals of the New Year you may have noticed I still haven’t fully reviewed 2018. But how can one truly review something that isn’t yet complete? Let one meal be finished before we can start digesting, I say, and then we can contemplate the next smorgasbord!

Here then — on the last day of the year — is my look back at the last year’s achievements, presented with a clean conscience that 2018 is indeed done and dusted, or will be by the time many of you read this …

Now, statistics can be boring unless one draws conclusions from them, so I’ll accentuate the conclusions but row back on the number crunching!

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Bad and dangerous

Lord Byron (1813) by Thomas Phillips

John Polidori: The Vampyre: a Tale (1819)
and a Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron (1816)
in Three Gothic Novels (edited by E F Bleiler)
Dover 1966

Buttressed by an editor’s introduction, the author’s own introduction, an extract from a later letter to Polidori’s publisher, and Byron’s original vampire tale fragment, this — the first completed modern vampire story in English — already contains many of the clichés now expected from the genre. Here is the pale nobleman with a dark secret, and here the young female victims; not unexpected is the vampire’s resurrection after death and the connection with Eastern Europe and the Levant.

But you can forget any mentions of bats, sinister castles or pointy teeth, though there are allusions to stakes, peasant huts, antiquarian structures and blood all over a victim’s neck and breast. Whether these are enough to summon up a vicarious thrill in the reader will really depend on how much one empathises with the characters depicted and the degree to which one is susceptible or immune to High Gothick style and sensibility.

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Promises of special things

Inverted commas 5: Will Stanton’s Christmas

Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in the corner of which Gwen could be found putting the final touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that.

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) Will Stanton’s family is preparing for the great day in their little corner of England. The conifer, grown locally, is fetched into the house:

When they carried the tree ceremonially through the front door, the twins seized it with cross-boards and screwdrivers, to give it a base. At the other end of the room Mary and Barbara sat in a rustling sea of coloured paper, cutting it into strips, red, yellow, blue, green, and gluing them into interlocked circles for paper-chains.

For them, as for many families, the decorating of the tree is left to the night before, all such ornamentation remaining until Twelfth Night when the Feast of the Epiphany (marking the visit by the Three Magi) takes place.

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.

All of the foregoing sounds like many a traditional Christmas. The next day there will be the visit to the village church for the Christmas Day service. But little else is overtly religious — the tree, the yule log, the preparations for feasting, the paper chains and greenery strewn around, all smack of a pagan midwinter festival more than the advent of a deity. At the local Manor the songs remain resolutely heathen in inspiration: a traditional wassailing song, the lullaby known as the Coventry Carol, Good King Wenceslas based on a medieval Bohemian legend.

And then Will later will find himself reading lines from The Book of Gramarye, verses that at first sight appear traditional but in truth are out of time:

He that sees blowing the wild wood tree,
And peewits circling their watery glass,
Dreams about Strangers that yet may be
Dark to our eyes, Alas!

There are hints that old Welsh myths are interwoven here, in lines translated by Robert Graves from his reconstruction of the sixth-century Cad Goddeu or ‘The Battle of the Trees’, a Welsh poem from The Book of Taliesin which he included in the mythic study The White Goddess:

I have plundered the fern | Through all secrets I spie;
Old Math ap Mathonwy | Knew no more than I.

And when Will encounters Herne the Hunter in Windsor Forest, the secrets of the battle between Light and Dark will be laid bare. In The Dark is Rising the author emphasises that the time of the midwinter solstice and the Twelve Days of Christmas are a magical and significant time of year.

No doubt this is one of the reasons the Church chose this period to celebrate the advent of Christ, whose actual birthday we are never told and will have no real way of knowing: throughout the northern hemisphere there are old traditions which some of us moderns consider essentially ‘Christian’ in basis but which in fact have long been there to mark the change of season and the turning of the year, the days of darkness turning towards the light.

But of course you all knew that.


A review of The Dark is Rising will appear in due course but, in the meantime, may I wish everybody the very best of Christmases, however you celebrate it!

Ten fictional books

Image credit: WordPress Free Media Library

I don’t think I’m the only person to be intrigued, even fascinated, by make-believe fictional books that appear in real fictional books. The kind of books that you could almost credit existed once, indeed heartily wish did exist in fact, whether or not you have any intention of reading them.

While reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising I recently did a little list of these works that I’d really like to imagine as existing and available, if not in our own then at least in some parallel universe. Various websites have selections of such fictional books — for example, Wikipedia’s is here — but I’ve deliberately not consulted these, relying instead on memories of novels I’ve read (all links are to my reviews or posts) or intend to read soon.

The sources for the fictional books are listed afterwards: the books themselves are in no particular order other than as they occurred to me.

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From transcript to transmission

Flowers, buds and leaves of Hydrangea macrophylla [credit: Alvesgaspar, Wikimedia]

Kate Atkinson: Transcription
Doubleday 2018

The title of this novel, as with many novels of ideas, is a key to understanding what unfolds in its pages. The main protagonist, Juliet Armstrong, works for MI5 during the war transcribing the recorded conversations of a group of fifth columnists, themselves entrapped by spy posing as one of them.

But is the spy what he seems? This is a second level of transcription: is what we read on the page an accurate record of what has transpired, or is it a best-fit interpretation, or indeed a false record? In metafictional terms, are the facts described in this novel the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

The narrative seesaws between 1940 and 1950, from global conflict to Cold War, framed by a flash-forward to 1981. Juliet herself moves from MI5 to the BBC — from transcripts to transmissions, as it were — and yet the manufacturing of ‘facts’ continues with children’s programming, especially the dramatic reconstructions of how life was supposed to have been lived in Britain in times past. And, indeed, in the ‘present’. Has everything been a lie?

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A fountain of youth

Natalie Babbitt: Tuck Everlasting
Bloomsbury 2003 (1975)

Who wouldn’t want to live forever? To extend one’s life so that one could savour life to the full, have new experiences, perhaps even be invulnerable to injury? There are no downsides, surely?

But a moment or two’s thought will soon reveal the drawbacks. Losing one’s friends as they grow old and die; witnessing perpetual change and not only for the better; being feared by other humans, becoming paranoid, lacking a sense of purpose or a reason for continuing. As many a fine mind has pointed out, death gives meaning to life.

This is the dilemma Winnie Foster faces when, constrained and restricted by her family, she determines to escape her bounds and go into the nearby woodland. This one act, determined on at the height of an oppressive summer, combines with two other coincidences to put Winnie in danger, the Tuck family at risk of exposure and to place the threat of Eternal Life for all in the hands of those who would exploit it for gain and unforeseen consequences.

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The story so far

Books read and reviewed in Goodreads 2018 Reading Challenge, as of December 15th: https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/10308469

A little over halfway through the last month of the year, and it’s time to see how my bookish year has gone so far. I set myself an easy Goodreads challenge to read forty books in 2018 but soon upped it to fifty-two as I passed the first benchmark well within forty weeks. I’ve reviewed 53 books for the Goodreads challenge, but I’ve actually read two more, with two reviews in preparation (titles by Kate Atkinson and Natalie Babbitt). I may well hit fifty-six or more by year’s end as I’m reading two more at the moment.

Of course, I know I’m a lightweight compared to many of you so these are just observations (obvs!) and not a boast.

Another goal I’d set myself for this year was to even up the gender balance in terms of authors read. How did I do?

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The Birthday League

Thames Tunnel (from the circular staircase), London published in Dugdale’s England and Wales Delineated, about 1830 [engraving, credit: Antiche Curiosità]

Remembering a piece of advice that a sailor had once given her, [Dido] said to the boy, “When’s your birthday? Mine’s the first of March.”
‘When you talk to a savage or a native,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself — your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food — tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit, then you can be friends.’

We have already begun to look at the personages in Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa and now it’s time to conclude that prosopography. From Petworth in West Sussex and Wapping in the East End of London we now move to Chelsea and other parts of southeast England to examine who we will be meeting in these places. Here is the usual spoiler alert. As if it is needed.

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The affectionate author

Dungeness shingle beach, southwest of Dymchurch (Kent)

E Nesbit: New Treasure Seekers
Puffin Classics 1982 (1904)

The well-meaning but accident-prone Bastable siblings are given another outing by Edith Nesbit, following on from the success of The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899) and The Wouldbegoods (1900). We reacquaint ourselves with the ‘anonymous’ author Oswald, with all his familiar malapropisms and self-proclaimed modesty, along with his siblings Dora (the sensible eldest) and then, after Oswald, Dicky (his frequent lieutenant), Alice, Noël (a wouldbe poet), and Horace Octavius (or H. O.).

The thirteen episodes often reference exotic places (including Rome, China, Italy or the Golden Orient) though we never leave the confines of Kent: they also ‘big up’ the protagonists (‘The Intrepid Explorer and His Lieutenant’), suggest dastardly deeds are afoot (‘Archibald the Unpleasant’, ‘The Turk in Chains; or, Richard’s Revenge’) or feature the Bastables’ charitable but doomed attempts to remedy the scrapes they have got themselves into (‘The Conscience-Pudding’ and ‘The Poor and Needy’). As ever, you sense their hearts are in the right place even if their steps constantly lead them astray. Even when they are involved in revenge (at least twice!) you feel they are attempting to right wrongs to the best of their imagination, ability and reasoning.

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A wolfish vampire in Wapping

 

The illustrations above depict Claire Sennegon in 1837 and, in a self-portrait, Christen Købke in 1832, both of whom I imagine Sophie and twin brother Simon might have resembled in the mid-1830s when Dido Twite finally reconnected with them in London. Simon of course was a talented artist while Sophie was equally adept at taking proactive roles.

In this post we will start looking at the characters who feature in Joan Aiken’s alternate history Wolves Chronicle Dido and Pa, some of whom (as we will discover) belong to an informal group known as the Birthday League. They’ll be introduced according to principal places in the novel, and as there is much background information the post comes in two parts: this is . . . part one.

Note: the usual spoiler alert applies!

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Disintegration and deception

A Paris street in the 1930s

Eric Ambler: The Mask of Dimitrios
Introduction by Mark Mazower
Penguin Modern Classics 2009 (1939)

Charles Latimer is a full-time writer of what we might now called ‘cosies’, detective novels set in English country houses and the like, with lurid titles such as A Bloody Shovel, Murder’s Arms and No Doornail This. Having given up a post in academia to dedicate himself to his new métier he is travelling around Europe contemplating a new plot when he unexpectedly meets up with a fan in Istanbul.

It turns out Colonel Haki is a police inspector, who happens to mention that a body has just been retrieved from the Bosphorus, identified as a man called Dimitrios. Latimer is intrigued and, while surreptitiously investigating further, finds himself embroiled in a complex web of drug smuggling, human trafficking, political intrigue, financial corruption and murder. Too late he finds himself liable to become another murder victim as his amateur investigations take him around the Balkans and then back across the continent via Geneva to Paris.

Europe between the wars was volatile, to say the least. Whether on the margins — in Turkey, say, or Bulgaria — or nearer the west there was in the late 1930s an undercurrent of dark doings under the deceptively still surface of everyday affairs. That undertow had been evident for some time: in the third chapter, entitled 1922, Ambler actually gives a synopsis of the bloody events in Smyrna (modern Izmir) involving Turkish and Greek soldiers in massacres and reprisals. Out of this turmoil appeared the character known as Dimitrios. He left behind an interrupted trail of murder and assassination before the watery emergence of the body viewed by the Englishman on a Turkish mortuary slab in 1938. Latimer decides to try to fill in those gaps, seeking the dubious help of a Polish agent, a Danish colleague of Dimitrios and others whose affiliations should have put a more sensible man off the whole enterprise.

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Vita at Sissinghurst

The gatehouse tower to Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, home to Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson, serves as an entry point to this illustrated post placing Vita in context before a review of her final novel. Her presence is evident in lettered tiles set into a window sill on the turret stairs.

Continuing up the stairs …

… the visitor soon is able to enjoy the views of the garden ‘rooms’ set out by Vita and Harold:

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The world of Dido’s Pa

The illustration is of The Wolf and Fox Hunt (about 1616) by Rubens in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image: public domain)


Another piece in the series of posts of one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles

In Dido and Pa much time is spent in the East End of London, in the docklands area of Wapping. But the narrative ranges more widely than this, and this post looks at the bigger picture. The role of Dido Twite’s father (Abednego/Desmond/Denzil/Boris) in this novel is huge, though his peregrinations in the capital — as we shall see — aren’t as extensive as some of the other characters.

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Retellings worth rereading

Antique shadow puppet: wayang kulit from Malaysia’s neighbour, Java [credit: Invaluable.com]

Daphne Lee (editor): Malaysian Tales.
Retold & remixed
Foreword by Adèle Geras
ZI Publications, Malaysia 2011

Sixteen tales, fourteen authors, one culture, all united in demonstrating the vitality of narrative traditions from the Malay peninsula. Drawing from myth, folklore, legend and oral history, these are refurbished tales in distinctive voices with individual tones, approaches and narrative styles. A few are straightforward retellings but most spin their stories — as all creative writings do — to give them contemporary relevance, either through placing them in modern contexts or drawing out themes latent in the originals. Daphne Lee has exercised a careful editorial judgement to commission and sequence these, and each tale has a brief afterword to explain how each contributor has arrived at their choice and treatment.

And what a range of treatments we are offered. Modernised tales which bring out psychological truths about personal relationships. A fable analogous to the story of the Gingerbread Man which uses updated language, puns and twists. A legend about a vampiric raja now turned into a pitch for a teenage movie. A tale about how Singapore is saved repurposed to explain why the saviour might have been condemned to death. A curious tradition about a rock that eats a mother is given the science fiction treatment. Each tale is rooted in Malay traditions but hybridised to give startling new blooms.

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