Alive with the sound

High Street, Crickhowell

As many know, Crickhowell in Wales was recently named as the Best Place to Live in Wales by The Sunday Times (as well as being awarded the accolade of UK’s Best High Street).

What better time then for this small market town to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Crickhowell Music Festival, the main events of which took place in St Edmunds Church approached, appropriately, from the High Street down Silver Street.

Under the inspired musical direction of conductor Stephen Marshall since the festival began, its main event in 1995 was a semi-dramatised performance of Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen; and this was a work the Choral Society chose to repeat in this special year, along with Bach’s magnificent B minor Mass. Bookending these performances were a recital given by the choir’s young choral scholars and other young musicians and, as a finale, a rousing concert by Welsh folk band ALAW, both in the town’s Clarence Hall.

As a marriage of words and music it seems an apt event to note here on this bookish blog written by a classically trained musician…

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Bookish town

Today, 7th March 2019, is World Book Day in the UK and Ireland: “The main aim of World Book Day in the UK and Ireland is to encourage children to explore the pleasures of books and reading by providing them with the opportunity to have a book of their own.”

This post has a twofold purpose: to mark World Book Day and, as part of Dewithon — the Wales Readathon — to celebrate the contribution of Book-ish bookshop in Crickhowell‘s High Street to the literary life of Wales. As a resident I’m quite happy to blow the trumpet and bang the drum for this small market town!

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Wrinkles in timelines

Wapping-on-Thames (detail) in the 1860s by James Neil Whistler

This is the first in a series of occasional posts discussing Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa, one of the instalments in the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (otherwise known as the Wolves Chronicles). Yes, it features wolves too!

Here, however, I wish to examine the vexed question of how the novel fits into the Chronicles timeline, and why the answers we seek may not be straightforward or even resolved in a satisfactory way; it won’t be a short post, sorry.

If you are new to Dido and Pa — or indeed to the Chronicles — you might want to look away now. (Links are to posts detailing various attempts to justify my conclusions on chronology.)

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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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