No scruples

Inverted Commas 18: Hands tied

“Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ’em.” — Farder Coram, Chapter 15 ‘Letters’

Parts of Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (2018) have both a universal relevance and one equally specific regarding the times we live in now. A chapter in which Lyra as the main protagonist is trying to escape detection in the Norfolk Broads is just such an instance. She is discussing with the gyptian elder Coram how it is that the Consistorial Court of Discipline is able to achieve what it does, and Coram gives her his view of the current political situation in Lyra’s world.

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Globetrotting, bookwise

I’ve not thought of myself as particularly insular where history, geography and politics are concerned but I have been aware that for some years the literature I’ve tended to gravitate towards has been firmly Anglocentric, with occasional forays in the direction of North America.

There are many reasons for this sad state of affairs but no excuses — all I can say is that it’s particularly shameful to me that a childhood growing up in what was then called the Far East, plus a subsequent sprinkling of study in some of the so-called Romance languages of Europe, hasn’t led to a broader familiarity with world literature.

So . . . Reading All Around the World. I’m not actually doing this challenge, but a recent-ish post by Lory caught my eye and I thought I’d check where, bookwise, I’ve already travelled in this year of grace, two-thirds of the way through twenty-twenty, with 52 titles under my belt.

Not far, it turns out.

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A clowder of cats

Back cover illustration by Fritz Wegner

Carter is a Painter’s Cat
by Carolyn Sloan,
with pictures by Fritz Wegner.
Longman Young Books 1971

A book bought to read with our first child (and, in due course, subsequent children) has remained a firm favourite, at least with me, for nearly fifty years. The irreverent text by British author Carolyn Sloan and equally irreverent illustrations by Fritz Wegner are a perfect marriage, quirky and deeply satisfying in a way that’s not easy to put one’s finger on.

But I shall try, so — deep breath — here goes.

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The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm

Cover generator: https://nullk.github.io/penguin.html

Alex, who blogs on fantasy and science fiction at Spells and Spaceships and tweets as (at)BlogSpells, posted this fun tweet recently:

Create your YA novel title:

The _______ of ________ and _______

1) type of place you like travelling to most — forest, church, castle etc.
2) Last thing you held in your hand other than your phone
3) thing you’re most scared of

Mine, as you can see, came out as The Ruin of Books and Sarcasm which I fondly thought had the enigmatic feel of titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance.

I also used this cover generator to produce a suitably official-looking Penguin Classics title using a photo of part of a mural I saw in Bristol.

Here is a summary of the imagined blurb on the back cover, which may or may not encourage you to go out and buy it — virtually of course!

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An unscrupulous passion

Inverted Commas 17: a Lust for Books

Freddy recognised the truth of what he said. She herself was a victim of that lust for books which rages in the breast like a demon, and which cannot be stilled save by the frequent and plentiful acquisition of books.

Freddy is the 14-year-old Fredegonde Webster from Robertson Davies’ 1951 novel Tempest-Tost, the first volume in his Salterton Trilogy. She has heard that the late Dr Savage’s library of “4300 volumes of Philosophy, Theology, Travel, Superior Fiction and Miscellaneous” is to be offered gratis to clergy of all denominations on a particular day, with the proviso that they must remove books personally. And now her lust for books has been fired up.

As well as being the date of Tove Jansson‘s birthday every 9th August is designated Book Lovers Day. I cannot let any further time pass without belatedly marking the occasion with further relevant quotes from the sixth chapter of the Canadian writer’s novel.

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The wisdom of wizards

Cardiff Waterstones wizard by Chris Riddell

For in dreams we enter a world that is entirely our own. Let them swim in the deepest ocean or glide over the highest cloud.
— Dumbledore

Harry Potter turns 40 today (he was born on 31st July 1980, fifteen years to the day after his creator) so I thought I would offer you a few choice words from just three of the best known fictional wizards in modern times.

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Incidental extras

“Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.”
— ‘Lyra and the Birds’

I seem to have abandoned — temporarily, I hope — my original summer reading plans and, instead of the titles I’d chosen for my Ten Books of Summer, other works (mostly rereads) are clamouring for my attention. And as I’ve always maintained that leisure reading should be for pleasure I’ve yielded to the temptation … which is absolutely fine in my book.

So I’ve just finished a reread of The Amber Spyglass and am preparing a considered review of that, followed with a quick shufti through Lyra’s Oxford to refresh my memory of that. Then it’s on — finally! — to The Secret Commonwealth.

While I gather my thoughts on the end of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy this may be also a good moment to pause and reflect on some incidentals.

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The Inside and Out Book Tag

I borrowed this tag from Bookforager — who borrowed it from other bloggers — who had no idea where it came from — so that’s the accreditation done.

I’m not a habitual tag-user on this blog — many tags, especially those ubiquitous blogging ‘awards’, seem designed to elicit the kind of private details (name of pet, favourite place) that fraudsters seek to ferret out — so I only introduce such Q&A posts sparingly, and only when I like the tone of the questions.

As here, in which the prompts are all book-related. And, even better, there are only eight questions, substantially less than on a tax form…

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Geognostic

Map from Frank Ferneyhough’s ‘The History of Railways in Britain’ (Osprey Publishing 1975)

[H]e has no bent towards exploration, or the enlargement of our geognosis […]. But so far is he from having any desire for a more accurate knowledge of the earth’s surface, that he said […] there should be some unknown regions preserved as hunting grounds for the poetic imagination.

A few chapters into George Eliot’s Middlemarch I came across this hapax legomenon,* the word geognosis (géognosie in French) uttered by Edward Casaubon when describing his second cousin Will Ladislaw.

Will’s preference for unknown regions remaining accessible only by the poetic imagination is analogous not only to George Eliot’s own setting of her novel — in an imaginary Loamshire — but to the paracosms that fantasy writers conjure up, such as the virtual world described in the Wolves Chronicles.

Joan Aiken’s Midwinter Nightingale (2003) has the geography and geopolitics of her offshore island in the 1840s heading in a very different direction from that in our world. This post attempts to start charting that alternate Britain using what we might therefore call virtual or alternative geognosis.

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Novels about gardens

Kirsty from The Literary Sisters recently reposted one of their pieces with the title Books about Gardens, which I was so taken with that I’m going to do my version, now, at the height of summer.

As the title suggests, I’m going to refer to books I’ve read, with links to any reviews, that have dealt one way or another with gardens in the modern era. I could have included references to gardens in the wider sense — the Middle Eastern concept of the paradise garden, or Thomas Browne’s 1658 overview The Garden of Cyrus, or turf mazes and labyrinths and the wildernesses of landscape gardening — but I’ve chosen to limit myself mostly to fiction, with just a couple of excursions beyond the paling.

Additionally, I note that these are in the main the grand gardens of English country houses or urban mansions rather than the more modest domestic examples of town terraces and the suburbs or examples from abroad. It’s something I need to address in a future post, whether they exist, say, in Mesopotamian mythology, in Chinese culture, the global tradition of public open spaces or Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories.

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Worlds apart

Gliffaes Country House Hotel walled garden © C A Lovegrove

Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife wends a different path from its predecessor Northern Lights in that instead of the reader inhabiting Lyra’s world for the duration one now starts moving from world to world.

The UK editions help us keep track of these different worlds with the author’s symbols in the margins of each page: the silhouette of a hornbeam tree for Will’s world (and ours), a dagger motif for the Cittàgazze world, the alethiometer standing for Lyra’s home world and a starburst symbol for the world in which Lord Asriel is building his fortress, the one intended for the republic of heaven.

Within these worlds representing different spaces in the boardgame of Pullman’s imagination the author moves his pawns and knights, his rooks and bishops, his kings and queens. Inevitably during the game some pieces are removed permanently from the board.

Warning: spoilers ahead

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Quandarification

I’m still in a state of ‘quandarification’. (Is there such a word? Well, there is now!) At the start of the year, when the word pandemic was something most of us associated with ancient history, I made a resolution to reduce book acquisition in the noble pursuit of tsundoku reduction.

Anybody afflicted by tsundoku will know that bittersweet feeling of guilt and pleasure with accumulations of unread books, but in a bid to support local business during lockdown I broke my resolve at the end of March.

Now, halfway through this crazy year, I think it may as good an opportunity as any for a quick bookwise review, and to also check on that quandarification.

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The scribbling itch

Virginia Woolf’s tidied up writing lodge at Monk’s House in East Sussex

Virginia Woolf:
A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’

Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.

Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.

What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.

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Angels, dæmons & witches

Francesco Maria Sforza (‘Il Duchetto’), by Marco d’Oggiono (d 1530). Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Among the many concepts Philip Pullman has introduced into his fantasy trilogies His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust — alethiometers, armoured bears, the subtle knife, Dust itself — one has particularly enamoured itself to fans from the very first page of Northern Lights.

I’m referring of course to dæmons, the figures with an animal shape that are integral parts of all humans in Lyra’s world.

As part of my ongoing discussion of the second title in His Dark Materials — The Subtle Knife — I want to offer a few thoughts on dæmons, but also muse a bit about two other entities which feature prominently; I refer of course to angels and witches.

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Classics updated

When so-called non-essential shops open

Classics date, don’t they? The archaic language can obscure meaning, contemporary references often require intensive research to make sense, and social customs can seem more irritating than quaint.

Time then to bring them bang up to date, to make them relevant to the period we live in. Here are some title rewrites suited to a time of crisis. I invite you to reimagine the texts for yourselves but, please, there’s no need to share your full adaptations here.

As before, I offer suitable cover designs for Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics courtesy of this online app where you may wish to avail yourselves of endless hours of amusement or, indeed, frustration.

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