Little things are important

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Nina Bawden: The Witch’s Daughter
Puffin Books 1969 (1966)

… little things are important. Even if they don’t always seem it. It’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. All the little bits don’t mean much on their own, till you fit them together to make a pattern.
—Tim, chapter 14

Makng a pattern. This is what the human brain is trying to do all the time in order to make sense of experiences. And that’s what the reader, in common with Tim in The Witch’s Daughter, is attempting with the seemingly random facts presented in its pages.

But life isn’t nice and ordered, is it? Sometimes the occasional facts refuse to fit the pattern, like odd socks in a drawer, or a misplaced piece in a jigsaw puzzle; and this novel, though it gives us a satisfying conclusion, doesn’t attempt to resolve all the loose ends. It a strange way, this gives it an authenticity and a realism rare in much children’s literature of this period.

And from the title you might be expecting a surfeit or at least a sufficiency of the supernatural but contrary to expectations this aspect is so muted as to cause you to doubt that it’s actually present. Nevertheless I think an underlying theme is sensitivity, a sensitivity which may include feelings and perceptions that everyday folk can be unaware of.

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CrickLit 2019

CrickLit (2018 dates) advertising, Dragon Inn

Five years on the Crickhowell Literary Festival goes from strength to strength, buoyed up by the small market town voted having the Best High Street in the UK and also rated the best place to live in Wales by The Sunday Times.

As usual the programme had a judicious mix of UK and Welsh authors and their books, some of which I volunteered to steward at, and all were curated by festival directors Emma Corfield-Walters of Book-ish and Anne Rowe, Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester and Emeritus Research at the University of Kingston.

Just to give a flavour of proceedings, these are the talks I was present at, along with brief summaries.

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Life of Python

mpfoot

Graham Chapman (Estate), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam,
Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Bob McCabe:
The Pythons’ Autobiography By The Pythons
Orion Books 2005 (2003)

All the Pythons (one from his grave) give a collective account of the career of the owner of one Flying Circus, an account made up of extracts from interviews and extracts from diaries and published memoirs.

The late Graham Chapman is represented by his own surreal recollections and comments from family members and partner, while the rest discourse freely on their early lives, education, university experiences (principally Oxbridge) and occupations as comedy writers, actors and (in the case of Terry Gilliam) cartoonist, before fame, fortune, frustration and infamy beckoned.

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Guide to Lyra’s worlds

Frederic Edwin Church's 1865 painting
Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

Laurie Frost:
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide
Scholastic 2007 (2006)

Pullman’s wonderful trio of novels inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost appeared around the same time as the Harry Potter books, but Pottermanes looking for more of the same were in the main disappointed. The feisty heroine Lyra, her universe of externalised souls called daemons, armoured polar bears and a mysterious phenomenon called Dust, not to mention criticism of an organised religious institution, confused and even angered many.

Sadly, the controversies often disguised Pullman’s accomplishments in world-building, complex plotting and character creation, all of which have contributed towards a work already acclaimed as a classic and which, true to its universal appeal, appeared in both adult and young adult editions. All that was needed was an Ariadne to take the reader through the labyrinthine ways of the multi-layered fantasy, as Martin Gardner did in The Annotated Alice.

Containing all you ever wanted to know about His Dark Materials, catalogued in encyclopaedic detail by superfan Laurie Frost, this hefty guide is teeming with maps, photos and drawings which enliven the text.

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Rumbustiousness and moral indignation

Charlotte Brontë, restored detail from a painting by her brother Branwell

Inverted Commas 13: Daydreaming

“I am, as Miss Scatcherd said, slatternly; I seldom put, and never keep, things, in order; I am careless; I forget rules; I read when I should learn my lessons; I have no method; and sometimes I say, like you, I cannot bear to be subjected to systematic arrangements. This is all very provoking to Miss Scatcherd, who is naturally neat, punctual, and particular.”

So says Helen Burns in Chapter 6 of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Ten-year-old Jane has been admitted to Lowood School and has just seen Helen, three years her senior, severely chastised by Miss Scatcherd, a woman whom Jane sees as cruel and vindictive for picking on Helen.

Helen however sees herself as entirely in the wrong, listing what she counts as her own faults. In a later elaboration she describes how she daydreams, allowing her concentration to stray from the teacher’s words.

“Now, [my thoughts] continually rove away; when I should be listening to Miss Scatcherd, and collecting all she says with assiduity, often I lose the very sound of her voice; I fall into a sort of dream. Sometimes I think I am in Northumberland, and that the noises I hear round me are the bubbling of a little brook which runs through Deepden, near our house; — then, when it comes to my turn to reply, I have to be awakened; and having heard nothing of what was read for listening to the visionary brook, I have no answer ready.”

“Yet how well you replied this afternoon,” replies Jane, with some wonder. “It was mere chance,” returns Helen, “the subject on which we had been reading had interested me.”

This time the subject was a king who reigned nearly two centuries before Brontë lived:

“This afternoon, instead of dreaming of Deepden, I was wondering how a man who wished to do right could act so unjustly and unwisely as Charles the First sometimes did; and I thought what a pity it was that, with his integrity and conscientiousness, he could see no farther than the prerogatives of the crown.”

For a thirteen-year-old Helen is quite perspicacious. “If he had but been able to look to a distance, and see how what they call the spirit of the age was tending!”

I have quoted all this because a lot of what Helen Burns says reminds me of myself both as a school student and latterly as an adult. I daydreamed during lessons and even lectures: a word, phrase or image would set my thoughts wandering freely down byways until brought back with a shock to the mainstream. Unless the subject interested me deeply and I could engage with what was being said — until the next moment when another idea caught my attention, distracting me from the main argument.

Like Helen — whom Jane witnessed being punished by having “sharply inflicted on her neck a dozen strokes with [a] bunch of twigs” which she herself had to fetch from a small inner room — I was beaten for inattention or, more frequently, not doing my homework, in the days when corporal punishment was permitted. I had the strap (several strips of leather sewn together) administered by Irish Christian Brothers or masters on the palms of my hand, up to six strokes in all on one occasion.* When I was twelve, going on thirteen I held the class record for straps in one year: thirty strokes, which I notched up on my wooden ruler.

Did it cure my inattention or laziness? No, it did not. Did Helen Burns learn to mend her ways? Hard to tell, given what was to come. But it made a great impression on young Jane, who had a natural rumbustiousness coupled with a towering moral indignation. Much of Jane’s appeal to readers must come from those sterling qualities, traits she shares with many a later young protagonist (such as Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite).


* Possibly false memory syndrome, now I think about it. I remember being strapped more than once on on each palm, but whether in all four or six strokes were given I can no longer swear to it. The practice of six strokes was not unusual.

Lost in books

Posts may be a little more intermittent over the next few days: I am stewarding at the fifth Crickhowell Literary Festival, directed by Emma Corfield-Walters of Crickhowell’s bookshop Book-ish and by Anne Rowe, author and Emeritus Research Fellow at Kingston University. To top it all I’m also involved in a couple of musical performances.

After that I shall be away for a few days but shall still attempt to keep up a flow of posts, though one or two will be reposts from the archives. If I’m a little less assiduous at this time about liking or commenting on posts in blogs I follow I apologise in advance — you know it’s not personal!

Crickhowell Bridge, 1840

Fixing moments in time

Raven from Sutton Hoo shield

John Preston: The Dig
Penguin 2008 (2007)

“Why don’t you tell me what made you become interested in photography?”
“I suppose it seemed a way of trying to fix moments as they went past. To try to capture them and give them some physical existence. Stop them from being lost for ever. Not that it necessarily works like that.”

Summer, 1939. Eight decades ago, with the prospect of war in the offing, a dig at the site of some mysterious mounds in Suffolk was under way. We now know that Sutton Hoo was the site of the largest ever ship burial in Britain, with the most unimaginably magnificent treasure forming the grave goods of a king of the East Angles. But when landowner Edith Pretty asked for an archaeologist to excavate the mounds nobody was prepared for what was to emerge from inside one of them, known as Mound 1.

What John Preston aimed for here was an imaginative reconstruction of those momentous events. While taking some major liberties with the timeline — sequences are occasionally telescoped — and inventing the odd individual he has nevertheless managed to conjure up a believable series of fictional accounts by key players for the novel’s backbone. In fact Diggers would be just as apt a title as The Dig has proved to be.

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