The Joy of Books (1)

There’s something about book anticipation that gets to this particular bibliophile. When I was a kid I remember being intrigued by the packaging of Fry’s Five Boys chocolate bar with its fivefold image of one lad in various stages: Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation and Realization. Maybe I won’t quite go through all five stages before acquiring the desired object — in my case, the book rather than a bar of chocolate — but that stage of expectation is one that I especially relish. Even the image of books (as in a watercolour of vintage paperbacks hanging on our wall) is enough to have me salivating.

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Where was The Shire?

Black Mountains
Black Mountains above Crickhowell, Powys, with Table Mountain’s silhouette on the right

Harken, friends of Halflings, I have a question! But before I ask it, let me lay bare the background.

Here in the Black Mountains of Wales, in the Vale of the Usk, there is a popular local tradition that J R R Tolkien was inspired by the local scenery and placenames to borrow several locations, thinly disguised, for his vision of the Shire in Middle Earth. Among the several places I’ve either seen or heard touted are Buckland near Brecon, Llangattock Mountain north of the South Wales Valleys, Sugar Loaf Mountain by Abergavenny, and Crickhowell, all in this southeastern corner of Wales.

For example, as part of the annual Crickhowell Walking Festival (“Now in its 10th year!”) is a walk which is described thus: A Walk Through Tolkien’s Shire.

Crickhowell is thought to be the inspiration for “Crickhollow” village in J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit”.

Of course you will immediately note several objections to this statement. The phrase “is thought” is a wonderful catch-all: no reference, no evidence, and no doubt easy to conclude that it is the actual inspiration. Secondly, Crickhollow is not mentioned in The Hobbit, though it does appear in The Lord of the Rings. Thirdly, it is not a village. In Chapter V of The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’ we’re told that Crickhollow is “Frodo’s new house”:

It was an old-fashioned countrified house, as much like a hobbit-hole as possible: it was long and low, with no upper storey; and it had a roof of turf, round windows, and a large door.

Let’s put these objections aside for the moment as probable misrememberings. Here is my actual question, and I’m genuinely interested in the answer: Did Tolkien actually visit this part of Wales? And where might I find the evidence? (Yes, I know technically that’s two questions, but they are inter-related!) Only then can we evaluate whether south Powys has a genuine claim to be a model for the Shire.

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Do you love libraries?

library-love

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”

I’m sure you’ve seen this quote all over social media, supposedly by the classical writer Cicero. However, I’d never seen the source given, leading me to suppose that this was one of those fake quotations that the internet is awash with, aimed at those who would be in sympathy with the views expressed.

Nevertheless, searching for the Latin translation seemed to offer some sort of resolution, and so it proved. The sentence is from a letter Cicero wrote to his friend Terence (found in Epistulae ad familiares Book IX, Epistle 4):

si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.

The literal translation is something like “If you have a garden in your library, nothing will be amiss.” The implication being that if you create a kind of bibliophile’s paradise — an oasis of calm perhaps — in your private library, where you can meet and discuss matters with your friends, all will be fine. You can see that the slightly inaccurate ‘quote’ usually given resonates rather more with modern feelings about public (as opposed to private) libraries.

I don’t need to tell you that in these straitened times — when we’re all told to tighten our belts even more, when all the fat has been sliced off public purses until the bone is reached — much of local government in the UK is trying their best to circumvent the admirable provisions of the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 in an attempt to fit in with government austerity diktats. And, equally, some of the public is trying to say “hands off” in every which way it can.

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Steward’s enclosure

www.cricklitfest.co.uk
http://www.cricklitfest.co.uk

Last week I was a steward. No, I wasn’t managing property, household affairs or dining arrangements, nor was I recommending wine or being a flight attendant. I was in fact helping out at a local literary festival, one of a team setting up venues, checking in ticket-holders and selling books.

‘Steward’, by the way, comes from the Old English stigweard, which is a compound of stig, hall or building (it survives as ‘sty’ in Modern English, as in the lowly pigsty) and weard, a ward, guard or keeper. In the 13th century one of the High Stewards of Scotland — those who managed the Scottish king’s finances — took the title as the family name of Stewart. The seventh High Steward became King of Scotland in the 14th century, thus initiating the Royal House of Stewart, and this spelling survived until the period when James Stuart became king of both Scotland and England.

This is all well and interesting, I’m sure, but as usual I’m wandering around the houses. Back to the literary festival, the second one to be held in this Welsh border town.

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Books of the dead

Of course stories aren’t just to be read in the pages of books, magazines or papers; they can be found written wherever one chooses to interpret words strung together in phrases, sentences and chapters. And many such can be sought in the churchyards, graveyards and cemeteries of our villages, towns and cities, in memorial plaques on walls or embedded in church floors, and on markers placed in isolated spots to indicate the resting places of beloved pets or even Dark Age personages.

I like browsing in churchyards, especially early ones. Gravestones from the Victorian, Georgian and even earlier periods frequently have epitaphs and inscriptions which are more interesting, even more curious than modern examples. Pious doggerel, classical epigrams, Biblical allusions all have their place on these books of the dead, and very occasionally we have fragments of a tragic tale, as in the two instances I’ve culled from the memorials surrounding Crickhowell’s parish church of St Edmund, Powys, Wales.

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Feeling festive

Crick-Lit-Fest-Logo-black

The second Crickhowell Literary Festival takes place October 1st-9th and, because I shall be stewarding for many of the events, blogging will be rather sporadic during this time. Be prepared for the odd repost of reviews you may have missed!

The festival is jointly sponsored by local hostelry The Dragon Inn, a Grade II listed coaching inn dating from the late 1500s, Book·ish, Crickhowell’s jewel of a bookshop, voted Best Independent Bookshop in Wales and the Midlands in the 2016 British Book Industry Awards, and a number of other local initiatives. The sixty-plus events will highlight a number of authors, feature workshops and film screenings, and include literary dinners and book clubs.

Crickhowell Literary Festival: http://cricklitfest.co.uk
Book·ish Bookshop, Crickhowell: http://www.book-ish.co.uk/

Strange wistfulness

vellichor
One in a series of Word of the Week outside Book·ish bookshop, Crickhowell

Book·ish, my local bookshop, has been highlighting a Word of the Week for the last few weeks, and among those featured has been

hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia

— which ironically (or probably deliberately) means “the fear of long words”. The online Urban Dictionary tells us that “sesquippedalio” relates to long words while “phobia” is an irrational fear. As for “hippopoto” and “monstro” (which are derived from hippopotamus and monster) they’re both included to exaggerate the length of the word. If such elongations are not your thing then perhaps the synonym sesquippedaliophobia (which means exactly the same thing) will easily substitute.

Another word featured is one I suggestedabibliophobia, or the fear of having no books to read. I also have high hopes of them including one of my recent neologisms, selidodeiktology, which you may remember is the study of bookmarks.

In the meantime a recent-ish meme has found its way onto their noticeboard. This is vellichor, as defined by — and possibly invented by — the online Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as

the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

The pedant in me assumes that what is meant by a “used bookstore” is actually a shop containing many used (that is, secondhand) books, though the Dictionary definition could equally mean a bookstore that is well frequented. Perhaps both are implied. But no matter; more interesting to my mind is, whence this concoction?

WorldWideWords.org suggests that it is a compound of ichor and vellum. “The former is the stuff that was said to flow in the veins of the Greek gods in place of blood,” while the latter refers of course to parchment made from calfskin, such as was used in medieval manuscripts. “For lovers of books, there is nothing more distinctive and melancholy than the sight and smell of old books, redolent of dust and decayed hopes.” They add that the term deserves to be more widely known — so here I am trying to spread the word, though I’ve no idea in what context I’m next likely to use it.

Anyway, all this is a preamble to my lauding of Book·ish which — wouldn’t you know — is hosting the second Crickhowell Literary Festival, or CrickLitFest for short. This year sixty-four events are being staged over nine days, from October 1st to October 9th, featuring talks, literary dinners, workshops, children’s events, film showings and other delights. As festival directors Emma Corfield-Waters and Anne Rowe write, a recent Saturday edition of The Times made reference to Crickhowell’s ‘renowned Literary Festival’ which had, at that point, had only one outing, its inaugural appearance! CrickLit aims again to focus — though not exclusively — on Welsh connections such as authors (like its new President, Owen Sheers) and topics (history, culture and, of course, rugby), but anniversaries such as the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will all also be commemorated.

Clearly this is intended as not just a nine day wonder to be forgotten once it is over but a celebration of books and writers that will resonate until at least the third festival in 2017. May that strange wistfulness that envelops well-used bookstores continue well into the future!

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