Urban gorilla war

Christmas Steps, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

[After Fire and Hemlock] I then started, immediately, to write Archer’s Goon. Just picked up a fresh block of paper and began. Now those of you who have read this book will know that it hinges on a man called Quentin Sykes discovering a newborn baby in the snow. I had just started the second draft of this book when my eccentric Sussex friend went for a walk in the middle of a winter’s night and discovered a baby. It is all very well my books coming true on me—it is a risk I take—but when this starts rubbing off on other people it is no joke.

Diana Wynne Jones, ‘A Whirlwind Tour of Australia’

Most if not all authors include bits of themselves, their lives, their family and friends in their novels, and that’s what often adds authenticity to their narratives and a sense of verisimilitude. That applies as much—if not more so—to fantasy as to contemporary fiction, but if authors find true life imitating fiction it can be disconcerting, to say the least.

Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasy Archer’s Goon (1984) has so much busy-ness about it that, outside a spoiler-free review, it’s hard to know where to begin. Perhaps a discussion of its physical setting would be a good starting point, because after that the characters and the themes can be placed like pieces and moves on a gameboard.

The author spent a good many decades in the English town of Bristol until her death in 2011 and this novel, like a few other novels of hers — such as Deep Secret (1997), The Homeward Bounders (1981) and Fire and Hemlock (1985) — features aspect of Bristol in its topography and placenames. As it happens, she has borrowed a good many street names for her unnamed town which, as an ex-Bristolian myself, I have walked and know well. So the first part of this spoiler-filled post will start with places, and then I shall go on to discuss a little (or maybe a lot) about people and themes. The curious names encountered — Archer, Shine, Dillian, Hathaway, Torquil, Erskine, and Venturus — refer to seven sibling magicians whose names will crop up later in the discussion. I shall also be mentioning Howard Sykes and his sister Awful — real name Anthea — who play central roles in most of the action when drawn into conflict with the enchanters.

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Once and Future

There and Back Again Lane, Clifton, Bristol © C A Lovegrove

Archer’s Goon
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1984).

Written and published during the Reagan-Thatcher years, when it felt as though some of the world at least was taking a dangerous lurch towards an confrontational and authoritarian triumphalism, Archer’s Goon explores some of that state of affairs in what presents merely as children’s fantasy.

It’s 1983, and the Sykes family find themselves at the centre of a conspiracy of squabbling siblings who plan to ‘farm’ the world; can Quentin Sykes, the father and a struggling author, stand up against the malevolent forces who besiege the family house and seek to use the power of the written word for nefarious purposes?

Or is the situation more complex than at first appears, and will the Sykes’ household of parents, son, daughter and student lodger each find they have a role to play, where their decisions and actions have unexpected consequences and their relationships be revealed as contrary to appearances?

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Many avenues to explore

hemlock

Fire and Hemlock
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Mammoth 1990 (1985)

Fire and Hemlock is one of Diana Wynne Jones’ more haunting books, with characters, situations and references that linger long after a first reading. It’s well known that the plot outline is taken from Northern ballads recounting the stories of Young Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, especially as she heads each chapter with quotes from the ballads and refers explicitly to the tales in her text.

The tales of a young man lured to the Otherworld by a fairy, and in the case of Tam Lin then rescued by a young woman, are purloined and brought into the 20th century, along with a heady mix of The Golden Bough and a whole host of other plots and characters.

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April Rainers

© C A Lovegrove

Hexwood
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Collins 2000 (1993)

Here’s another twisty plot from the girl Jones, somewhat similar to wandering around a curiously managed patch of spring woodland. One thing I have learned about rereading Diana Wynne Jones novels is that, whatever my first impressions were, future revisits will inevitably reveal that I wasn’t paying proper attention the first time around. Or even the second time.

In this fantasy, for example, much is made of the sense of déjà-vu experienced by principal characters, emphasising that this or that memory will always prove more or less elusive the more one tries to examine it. And so it proved with my reread — I kept having to turn back pages to check if and when something familiar seemed to turn up, and not always being successful.

In fact, then, Hexwood appears to be a kind of metaphor or indeed metafiction for the experiences a reader has when visiting the author’s novels for the first or, indeed, the nth time, highly apt then for a fiction which doggedly explores the unreliability of time perception.

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Marching off

The end of March, and a quarter of the way through the year after the year. Many readers have reported a slump in their reading (like many authors have noted lethargy where their writing is concerned) and I do understand that: the current global situation makes us all anxious and that hits us in different ways.

I find though that I can only really keep up my positivity through books; if I didn’t have access to books I’m not sure how I’d cope mentally because I’m an inveterate reader — social media, newspapers, food wrappers — and even my fallback, playing the piano, involves me doing a fair amount of sightreading scores.

Apologies, then, to those who are finding your literary mojo dampened: I do sympathise — even as I seek out the next thing to read, for my tottering TBR piles seem at the moment to be inexhaustible.

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Life in the realms of death

Imogen as Fidele, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (Wikimedia)

The Time of the Ghost
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by David Wyatt.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2001 (1981)

Corn yellow and running, came past me just now, the one bearing within her the power to give life in the realms of death.

As with so many of Diana Wynne Jones’s fantasies she weaves in so many strands — autobiographical, literary, supernatural and more — that it becomes almost like an ancient artefact or artwork, an object that mystifies as much as it magnetically draws one in, a magical narrative that repays a second read or more, and then a hefty bit of research and recall.

For example, the ghost of the title hears a voice from a longbarrow, the speaker mistaking a sister called Imogen for his long-dead daughter. This must surely be the Cunobelinus who was transformed in Shakespeare’s play into Cymbeline, who had a daughter called Imogen who was presumed to have been killed. And though the novel is set in North Hampshire the author draws from her childhood in Essex, the area with which Cymbeline and his family is associated.

So already we are seeing autobiographical and literary details being drawn together, but for the innocent reader what comes through most is a mystery story concerning a very strange family and a ghost who doesn’t know who she is.

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Thinking of everything

A Tale of Time City
by Diana Wynne Jones.
Greenwillow Books / Harper Trophy 2001 (1987)

And it seemed to be true that all your life came flooding into you mind in your last moments. She thought of Mum and Dad and London and the War and Time City, and she wanted to shout at Mr Lee, Wait, I haven’t thought of everything yet!

Time certainly does play tricks on you; in my case I was certain I’d read this fantasy when I acquired it a decade and a half ago, but now that I’ve finished it very little seems familiar other than the initial premise. In a way, however, that’s quite appropriate for a novel about time travel in which the past is sometimes not only a different country but also not what you thought it was.

The first thing the title does is remind the reader of A Tale of Two Cities, and whether that was fortuitously arrived at or chosen from the start it does indicate that one of the themes the author intended to make use of was the trope of confused identities: young evacuee Vivian Smith escaping a London about to undergo the Blitz is of a kind with London barrister Sydney Carton during the period of the French Revolution. Dickens’ doppelgänger motif is one of a number of parallels Diana Wynne Jones plays with here, and you will note that as well as London being one of the cities of the Dickens novel there’s another city involved, Paris in one and Time City in the other: both are in turmoil from a Revolution, Time City almost literally so.

What is Time City? It’s a environment outside of time and space: its architecture takes inspiration from our own past, present and, presumably, future, and at times resembles Escher’s famous Relativity etching; and if Time itself can symbolised by a clockface, Time City is situate precisely at that infinitesimal moment represented when the clock’s hands all point to 12. Its function is to oversee Earth history, filled as it appears to be with periods both stable and unstable; meanwhile its functionaries patrol and where necessary intervene in history, tweaking events to ensure all is well. That is, however, providing that chronons — particles which destabilise time — don’t attach themselves to someone who then travels through time. Somebody like 11-year-old Vivian.

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March Magics 2021

https://webereading.com/2021/02/announcing-marchmagics-2021-all.html

Today, on the eve of the halfway mark for the twenty-eight days of February, I’m already getting excited about March. As well as planning on reading books for the Wales Readathon and Reading Ireland Month I’m hoping to revisit titles by the late Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett, both of whom left us in this month.

I’m glad to see that Kristen at https://WeBeReading.com is again running March Magics, the annual celebration of these two fantasy writers (who were both West Country authors by adoption, with connections to my hometown Bristol).

Kristen’s introductory post gives an outline plan of the focus of this year’s event, and I’d like to share with you her principal aims and how my response may shape up.

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The queen and her coven

Black Maria
(Aunt Maria in the USA)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1991)

But it’s no good thinking happy endings just happen. — Chapter 11

Mig Laker, her brother Chris and her mother have been persuaded to spend a spring break with her father’s Aunt Maria in Cranbury-on-Sea. But pretty soon they find themselves skivvying for the old lady, whose helpless, defenceless appearance belies her ability to get her own way, and it looks as though they mayn’t be able to leave.

And there are mysteries: Mig’s estranged father is missing, believed drowned in his car, but Mig and Chris think they have spotted the vehicle in the town. And why are the town’s inhabitants so weird? Aunt Maria’s cloying coterie of female friends (the several “Mrs Urs” is the collective term Mig gives them) seem to be forever spying on the trio; the men seem very distant, almost zombie-like, and keep to themselves, while the children Mig sees she finds chillingly clone-like.

This may be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s creepiest novels but, leavened with her mischievous humour, it also raises important questions about gender roles, the respect one owes to one’s elders, and the nature of invidious control.

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Master of mischief

Diana Wynne Jones:
Eight Days of Luke
Illustrated by David Wyatt
Collins 2000 (1975)

Feeling grateful. Feeling guilty. Feeling angry when you’re wrongly accused. Feeling frustrated when your wishes are thwarted. Being a child under the charge of adults gives rise to so many emotions, some negative, many persisting into adulthood. For orphan David Allard, whom if we had to guess is about ten or so, emotions are running particularly high: the relatives he is now living with are unsympathetic to the point of unfairness and he is just about to explode.

Retreating to the end of the garden he expresses his anger in a torrent of gibberish words. Somehow this ‘spell’ coincides with what appears to be a mini earthquake, which causes the garden wall to tumble down and venomous snakes to appear. And from nowhere up pops a boy with reddish hair, who calls himself Luke.

After the initial shock David is of course very confused, but the personable Luke seems promising as a new companion for the luckless lad so they strike up a friendship, with Luke expressing sincere gratitude at being freed from his prison. But this odd occurrence is merely a prelude to a week of strange occurrences in which new acquaintances are made and the master of mischief himself is unmasked.

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Beating the Bounds

Physics building, Royal Fort House and Gardens, Bristol (photo: Ben Mills)

Even if your patience hasn’t worn too thin you may nevertheless be glad I’m planning to make this a last discussion post about Diana Wynne Jones’s novel The Homeward Bounders (1981).

If you’ve arrived new to the wider discussion, my review of the fantasy is here, some observations about the author’s intentions here, and possible links with another novel, Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet, can be found here.

But (as usual) my thoughts may well be rather too eclectic, so I humbly apologise if my speculations prove a tad over-enthusiastic. If you’ve read the novel you may more easily follow my line of argument; if not then just enjoy the ride! (But beware, there are massive spoilers.)

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Unbound

Titian’s Prometheus (Prado, Madrid)

Diana Wynne Jones:
The Homeward Bounders
Illustrated by David Wyatt
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1981)

“Are you one? Do you call us Homeward Bounders too?”
“That is the name to all of us is given,” he said to me sadly.
“Oh,” I said. “I thought I’d made it up.”

Jamie Hamilton is twelve going on thirteen, living in a past which we can establish is 1879. But when, in exploring his town, he comes across a mysterious building where cloaked and hooded figures flit about his curiosity get the better of him and, by intruding on them, he becomes an outcast from the life with which he has grown familiar.

And it is all the doing of Them, as he soon terms those figures, games players who decide the fates of individuals, societies and worlds. As a ‘discard’ from the game They play he is forced to be both bystander and wanderer as he is thrown from one world to another without so much as a ‘by your leave’.

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Gossamer thin

Isis knot or tyet amulet, Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET DP109370)

There is a curtain, thin as gossamer, clear as glass, strong as iron, that hangs forever between the world of magic and the world that seems to us to be real. And when once people have found one of the little weak spots in that curtain which are marked by magic rings, and amulets and the like, almost anything may happen.
— Chapter Nine, The Enchanted Castle by E Nesbit

It’s time for a progress report on my reading — not part of any nominal schedule, I must admit, but because I feel the urge to provide one. And it’s all because of gossamer-thin threads that have formed webs of connections in my flibbertigibbet brain.

But first I must register a confession. It’s been a fortnight or more since I wrote an entry in my ship’s log concerning the fateful voyage of Ahab and his crew on board the Pequod, and they have been languishing in the doldrums for far too long. I may not make my intended Easter deadline after all; but at least the crew aren’t going anywhere, and I’ve fixed their last position.

However, in Joan Aiken‘s Night Birds on Nantucket Dido Twite found herself aboard a whaler chasing after a benevolent cousin of Moby-Dick — some compensation, maybe — and of course I’ve been trying to fit Dido’s sister Is’s exploits into a chronology that follows on after the whale hunt in Aiken’s alternative history known as the Wolves Chronicles; so Herman Melville‘s novel isn’t entirely out of mind.

But in the meantime my brain has been tracing out a larger web of connections.

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Getting into difficulties

Statue outside Old Library, Cardiff

Fellow literary blogger, tweeter and teacher Ben Harris recently expressed slight dismay at Diana Wynne Jones’ ‘difficult’ novel The Homeward Bounders, first published in 1981 early on in her writing career.

Coincidentally I had been ruminating about which DWJ book to read (or, rather, reread, as bar a handful of titles I’ve read virtually all her works) for Kristen’s annual blogging event March Magics. This novel, then, seemed as good a book to tackle as it’s one of a few of her titles I haven’t yet reviewed.

So this post is by way of an introduction to a second reading, a post in which I’ll mostly be making use of clues from Jones’ own words. These will be from the collection of her non-fiction writings in Reflections on the Magic of Writing (David Fickling Books / Greenwillow Books 2012) published the year after her death on 26th March 2011.

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Like a lion

In like a lion, out like a lamb.

It’s coming up to that time of year when the door to one season starts shutting while another slowly swings ajar.

Following my New Year commitment not to commit to specifics concerning my 2020 reading I’m not therefore going to detail what exactly I intend to read for March — mainly because I have no idea at the moment!

Nevertheless, vague possibilities are coalescing around upcoming events in the reading calendar.

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