I have a confession to make. I’m a scribbler, and always have been. Not on any old surface though, oh no – just on paper. And not just on any old scrap of paper but in notebooks.
I’m not at all fussy. Not for me beautifully presented Moleskine journals which I’d be reluctant to touch, let alone mark with anything but a fountain pen or a goose quill trimmed with a penknife and dipped in oak gall ink.
No, cheap notebooks with rough surfaced pages, ruled and margined, are my stock in trade. French cahiers, packs of exercise books purchased from high street stationers or corner shops, old school jotters surplus to requirements – I’ve treasured them all. And I’ve happily scribbled in all of them.
Repost of a piece first published 18th February 2018
How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?
I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar.
What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?
I can’t help marking the passing of a second Elizabethan Age here in a post, especially as I was in the crowd on the Mall as a lad of four – coincidentally the same age then as the boy who would be king Charles III – to watch the young queen drive by in her golden coach to Westminster Abbey to be crowned. And then, several hours later, back to Buckingham Palace. All this of course on 2nd June 1953.
Refreshing what I remembered from school about the first queen of that name brought to light a few inexact parallels with the late monarch, parallels which I thought I would share here while they’re fresh in my mind.
And whether you’re a monarchist or a republican – and though on the fence I lean more towards the second frame of mind – I feel it’s important to acknowledge the seven decades of her reign, especially while the UK is still in its prolonged period of enforced mourning. How does Queen Lilibet compare with Good Queen Bess?
“This is true Liberty where free born men Having to advise the public may speak free, Which he who can, and will, deserv’s high praise, Who neither can nor will, may hold his peace; What be juster in a State than this?”
Euripides, ‘The Suppliants’ (transl. Milton)
Social media, mainstream media and politics are all full of news, discussions, assertions about and denials of freedom of speech. But arguments surrounding it are nothing new, because John Milton – yes, that John Milton – waxed lyrical about it nearly four centuries ago.
Areopagitica; a Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, to the Parlament of England. Milton wrote his tract Areopagitica after the passing of the Licensing Act of 1643, which had given Parliament the power to censor books before publication, a power he did not approve of.
Not a text I remember anything about when I was studying the Tudors and Stuarts for Advanced Level at school, I only really registered Areopagitica when reading Penelope Fitzgerald’sThe Bookshop (1978): she quotes a key sentence from the tract – “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life” – as justifying the availability of books expressing varying opinions. It remains a clarion call in 2022.
Princess Elizabeth was proclaimed queen after her father, George VI, died early on 6th February 1952. I was only three at the time, living in the then Crown Colony of Hong Kong, so the occasion will have passed me by or, if communicated to me, instantly forgotten. I continued listening to child star Ann Stephens singing They’re Changing Guard at Buckingham Palace on my wind-up gramophone, oblivious to what it was all about.
A year later we were back in Blighty for my parents to buy a house in the West Country, and in early June we joined the crowds on The Mall in London to mark Coronation Day. “Where is she going?” I asked my mother after the young queen’s golden coach rapidly passed us en route from Buckingham Palace towards Admiralty Arch and Westminster Abbey. “Around the roundabout and back again,” was the reply, leading me to expect the sovereign’s speedy return.
What I wasn’t told was that the “roundabout” would in fact be the Abbey, that the coronation service, beginning at 11.15am, would last almost three hours, and that then her return journey was routed around central London, taking from 2.50 to 4.30pm. It was a long wait — around six hours — for a four year old, even one who was nearly five, and thoroughly confusing: why was the coach taking so long to get round the roundabout? Nobody told me.
I’ve noticed an interesting trend — if trend it is — in my reading of late, and it is this. Many of the titles I’ve consciously or unconsciously chosen seem to have an ‘issue’ at their heart, whether racism, feminism, authoritarianism, environmentalism or some other pressing concern.
Sometimes there’s more than one of these, implicit or explicit, expressed as a factor that one could call the ‘inciting incident’, or as an injustice simmering away till everything boils over.
So, whether the choice of title turns out to be conscious or unconscious two questions rise to my mind. One, is there a reason (or more likely, are there reasons) for this to be the case, if it hasn’t always been so; second, is it a trend other bloggers have noticed?
Prefaces. Introductions. Forewords. They’re helpful, aren’t they, when they’re designed to give you an inkling of what’s in store, to whet your appetite for what’s to come. A bit like a extended blurb, maybe to give a bit of context to the work, or a potted history of the author. Useful stuff.
Except when they’re not. When they prove to be dull as ditchwater with extraneous material, or when you’re faced with egregious spoilers, or — if written by a third party — they prove to be principally about … the third party.
Above all, I hate it when introductions basically tell you what to think, to get you to form an opinion of a text which you haven’t yet read. Is there anything more annoying than arriving at a novel with a prejudice formed before the very first sentence, even if planted there with good intentions?
You should know me by now, you’ll know I don’t usually like book tagging, in fact I don’t usually do tags. Specifically, I don’t do the kind of tags which pose all kinds of impertinent questions, almost up to but not quite asking “What is your PIN number?” (Don’t get me started on the tautology involved in that last phrase.)
But when, under the tag Good to Meetcha, Bookforager posted some quirky questions which I found strangely pertinent I was, dear Reader, extremely tempted. In fact I went further and swallowed the hook, the line and the veritable sinker.
I hate the usual “what do you do?” and “where are you from?” questions that normally get fired out upon making a new acquaintance. The answers invariably fail to give me any sense of the person I’m talking to, and feel … judge-y. So this tag is about the things I actually want to know when I first meet a new person (specifically, the ones I want to be friends with).
Just because a book is written by a woman or is about women doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer men. It opens their eyes to what it’s like to live as a woman, the first step to learning empathy. And it may help to burst the bubble many men have been inadvertently living in, allowing new thoughts and insights to germinate. Isn’t that what the arts are for?
M A Sieghart
In the Guardian Review for 10th July earlier this year Mary Ann Sieghart’s piece ‘Bookshelf bias’ quite rightly bemoaned the results of a research she’d commisioned which showed that “men were disproportionately unlikely even to open a book by a woman,” and that of the “top ten of bestselling female authors only 19% of their readers are men,” the rest being women, while male authors had a more evenly split readership tilted slightly towards males.
I mention this because as a male I have in recent years been trying to ensure I get a better gender balance in the authored books I tend to read. This year, for example, of the 54 titles I’ve read so far 27 are by women and one is a collection of short stories by both male and female writers. And my intentions in so doing were for the very same reason Sieghart exhorts men to read women: to learn empathy. This then is the first bookish aperçu I want to share with you today.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot…
I’ve fallen into the habit of posting every two days with either a review or a discussion; I’ve also found it’s becoming a bit obsessive. Well, more than a bit if I’m honest. I’ve always tried to post regularly (bearing in mind WordPress advice regarding maintaining a blog) but the curse of social media online is that increasingly we’re living in the here and now, too often ignoring the past and future darknesses which the light from this very moment’s candle doesn’t reach.
When I look at my stats over the years I see that the greater part of the site’s traffic occurs in the winter months, tailing off in the summer; but that hasn’t stopped me feeling that, if I don’t keep posting, posting, posting, followers will stop visiting, my online presence will fade, I’ll become a shadow presence and my idiot tales will be heard no more …
I know very well where this personal malaise comes from, fuelled by multiple sources, many of which you will be familiar with since they’ll be common to many of us in these strange times. And I know that reading and blogging represent distractions from the many stark realities that would overwhelm me if they were all that I chose to contemplate.
I’ve just read and reviewed a novel which centred around an author who struggled to follow on from a successful first novel. He was offered a strategy to help deal with his writer’s block: write two thousand words of any old nonsense at set intervals. In Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy this seems to have worked for him.
This fictional premise reminded me of an incident in the 1960s when I was in my teens. Around the age of sixteen and inspired by Treasure Island I began a novel set in 18th-century Bristol, having done some desultory research by cycling round the city’s historic sites. Unfortunately my parents got hold of the unfinished first chapter and made some really patronising comments, as a result of which I abandoned all attempts to write any fiction. That is, until I joined a creative writing class in my late 60s.
You’d think all those exercises I wrote — they eventually led to a Certificate of Higher Education in Creative Writing Studies from Aberystwyth University — would have stood me in good stead, and that the sluicegate holding back all those imaginative juices would have been opened—but no. Instead I pour all my energies into blog post after blog post—reviews and such—perhaps in the firm belief that I’m still learning the craft from the masters.
What’s the link between a celebrity and a chrysalis, between a student and a pet, and between a marionette and a metaphorical apple? And, indeed, what are the links between them all?
Let’s take a closer look at this; and for looking we need an eye, and something to look at. So I shall start with the notion of the icon, and then range widely between observers and the observed. And where better to start than with one of the funerary portraits from Faiyum in Egypt, a painting done from life to be placed with the mummified body after death?
Here then is an exemplar of the Greek word eikon, meaning a likeness, image, or portrait; and like many portrait icons from later Christian traditions the subject gazes frankly out at the viewer with dark, dilated pupils. The look is almost mesmerising, reminding one of the proverb that the eyes are the window to one’s soul. Or, as Charlotte Bronte wrote in Jane Eyre, “The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”
We try to judge character from such icons, don’t we; but even though these days ‘icon’ usually has one of two popular meanings — a digital symbol used on social media, or an object or indeed celebrity judged to have ‘iconic status’ — both of course are visually presented, requiring the eye of the observer to appreciate them.
Sharp-eyed followers of my posts will have realised I have a thing about maps, real as well as fictional, and any that are a kind of halfway house too. In addition they may have noted that a few of my reviews have been as much about islands as they’ve been about lands.
In fact I even considered what I might include as my Desert Island Books, should I ever be cast ashore on a sea-girt piece of earth with a climate which didn’t rot the binding, curl the pages, or fade the print.
I was curious about which islands I’d actually visited on this blog, and which if any I’d be happy to be a castaway on. So here is a rapid tour of a selection of some of them, some of which you may have sojourned on yourselves, and I shall end with an attempt to settle on my ideal. (Links will mostly take you to my reviews.)
“It is mine, I tell you. My own. My precious. Yes, my precious.”
The strength of a book, sometimes even its worth, lies often in its resonances, like the echoes in a cavernous space rebounding back to the caller. It’s a poor work, I feel, that gives nothing back to its reader. In my immature youth I avoided much fiction in the mistaken belief that it would unduly cramp any creative impulses I aspired to; I now see that a great work of fiction frequently borrows freely from its predecessors while transforming and transfiguring the material, and that wider reading of fiction then may well have been to my advantage.
In my continuing read of The Lord of the Ringsfor my series Talking Tolkien I have been revisiting the Council of Elrond chapter in which the back history of the One Ring is openly shared and discussed. At one point Aragorn’s ancestor Isildur is quoted as unwittingly but significantly describing the Ring as “precious”, a description which we may recall was Gollum’s own name for his “birthday present,” taken violently from his cousin. Isildur wrote:
“But for my part I will risk no hurt to this thing: of all the works of Sauron the only fair. It is precious to me, though I buy it with great pain.”
Isildur, quoted in ‘The Council of Elrond’
And I recall some apparently unrelated reading I did some years ago and more recently which amplified the resonances set up during another of my rereads of LOTR, resonances which, with your usual kind indulgences, I’d now like to share.
Rarely has a review of mine generated so much commentary or so many viewings; and even more rarely has so much bile been directed to it and, by extension, to me. That review I entitled ‘Unreadable nonsense‘, a critique of a pseudohistorical publication pretending to have identified not just one but two candidates for King Arthur.
It provoked a range of responses, from readers agreeing with my assessments through to commentators prepared to politely disagree, and on to fanatical supporters of the book’s authors, many of whom share a common inability to answer criticism with any degree of logic. It is the comments from this third cohort I want to discuss here because they seem to me to exemplify the irrational side of some individuals, the type who believe that being contrary indicates a valid antiestablishment position, regardless of how nonsensical the taking that position is.
Note, roughly half of the sixty-plus comments on that post are my answers, and the antagonistic comments number just a handful.
For award-winning, internationally-acclaimed author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). By Anthony Lawton: godson, cousin & literary executor. Rosemary Sutcliff wrote historical fiction, children's literature and books, films, TV & radio, including The Eagle of the Ninth, Sword at Sunset, Song for a Dark Queen, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, Dawn Wind, Blue Remembered Hills.