A symbolic London

Nicholas Hawksmoor’s St George’s Bloomsbury (1730) in imitation of the Mausoleum, the ancient tomb of Mausolus, but guarded by a lion and a unicorn [own photo]
The Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton.
Introduction and notes by Stephen Medcalf,
Oxford University Press 1996 (1908)

Having enjoyed Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands, a thriller about a projected German invasion of Britain published in the first decade of the twentieth century, I was drawn to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. After all, this first appeared in that same decade, in 1908, and ostensibly concerned an anarchist conspiracy, hatched in Britain, to cause disruption by assassinating the Russian Tsar in Paris. The very title promises us plots, codenames and derring-do. But I was to find that Chesterton’s intentions in writing this novel were rather different from Childers’ concern to highlight what he saw was a very real national threat.

The plot, convoluted as it is, can be reduced to a few sentences. Gabriel Syme is a poet who gets drafted in as a police detective by a mysterious stranger to investigate an anarchist conspiracy. He makes the acquaintance of another poet, Lucian Gregory, along with his sister Rosamond Gregory in the West London suburb of Saffron Park (Bedford Park by another name). Lucian calls himself an anarchist poet, and challenges the more conservative Syme to pay a visit with him to an underground (literally underground, as it turns out) anarchist movement.

The poet-cum-detective incredibly then gets elected to the inner cabal of seven Anarchs who answer to the name of the seven days of the week. Syme, as Thursday, gradually discovers the secret of each of the other Anarchs, with a final revelation taking place at the home of Sunday, the leader of the Central European Council.

If the basic plot appears to follow the precepts of the standard detective thriller, the same can’t be said of the content.

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The Birthday League

Thames Tunnel (from the circular staircase), London published in Dugdale’s England and Wales Delineated, about 1830 [engraving, credit: Antiche Curiosità]

Remembering a piece of advice that a sailor had once given her, [Dido] said to the boy, “When’s your birthday? Mine’s the first of March.”
‘When you talk to a savage or a native,’ Noah Gusset had said, ‘always tell him some secret about yourself — your birthday, your father’s name, your favourite food — tell him your secret and ask him his. That’s a token of trust; soon’s you know each other a bit, then you can be friends.’

We have already begun to look at the personages in Joan Aiken’s alternate history fantasy Dido and Pa and now it’s time to conclude that prosopography. From Petworth in West Sussex and Wapping in the East End of London we now move to Chelsea and other parts of southeast England to examine who we will be meeting in these places. Here is the usual spoiler alert. As if it is needed.

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The world of Dido’s Pa

The illustration is of The Wolf and Fox Hunt (about 1616) by Rubens in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (image: public domain)


Another piece in the series of posts of one of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles

In Dido and Pa much time is spent in the East End of London, in the docklands area of Wapping. But the narrative ranges more widely than this, and this post looks at the bigger picture. The role of Dido Twite’s father (Abednego/Desmond/Denzil/Boris) in this novel is huge, though his peregrinations in the capital — as we shall see — aren’t as extensive as some of the other characters.

Continue reading “The world of Dido’s Pa”

Wapping stories

Detail from Mogg’s Strangers Guide to London and Westminster (1834) http://www.mapco.net/mogg/mogg23.htm

We’ve now arrived at the next point in our explorations of Joan Aiken’s Dido and Pa, an alternate history fantasy set during the 1830s in a parallel London. A review of the novel appeared here and a discussion of the convoluted chronology was posted here. I’d now like to introduce you to the geography of the locations the author puts into Dido and Pa and how they compare and contrast with what existed in our London then and how it is now.

The East End of London was a rapidly developing area of London between the late 18th and early 19th century. The Ratcliffe Highway (named from red cliffs above the Thames) overlooked the Wapping marshes on the north bank of the river. Here new docks were carved out in a series of basins, with new warehouses to house the goods brought upriver to the capital. The area also attracted shady characters and gained an unsavoury reputation: the famous Ratcliffe Highway murders in 1811 (examined by P D James, co-author of The Maul and the Pear Tree) were, in terms of notoriety, just the tip of the iceberg.

It is here that Joan Aiken chose to set most of the action of Dido and Pa.

Continue reading “Wapping stories”

Joining dots

Siobhan Dowd: The London Eye Mystery
Introduction by Robin Stevens
Penguin 2016 (2007)

Here’s a wonderful variation on the locked-room mystery: how can a boy who is seen to enter a pod on the famous London Eye wheel somehow disappear when the pod docks again half an hour later? Salim’s cousins, Ted and Kat, are left baffled, as are his estranged parents and Ted and Kat’s parents, not to mention the police. But by coming up with hypotheses for that disappearance and evaluating them, and by some clever underhand sleuthing, Ted and Kat slowly inch towards a solution; the worry is that, as time goes on, finding Salim will come too late to save him.

On the surface this sounds like a run-of-the-mill adventure story where children prove more than the equals of the police in solving a mystery. But The London Eye Mystery is not your average juvenile crime novel: there is a grounding in reality, in the hopes and fears of family life, in the recklessness that sometimes typifies adolescence, and in aspects of the mental processes someone on the autism spectrum may go through.

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Altered state alter ego

Houses in Moray Place, Edinburgh (“Auld Reekie”), in 2018. Stevenson lived for nearly three decades in Heriot Row, just off Moray Place

Robert Louis Stevenson:
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896, 1885)

My memory of reading this as a teenager focuses almost entirely on the one shockingly violent scene in this novella, the one where Edward Hyde viciously attacks a prominent Parliamentarian in a London street. In my immature haste to get to the action I had clearly bypassed all the diversions — the discussions, the dialogues and the descriptions — as irrelevant waffle. For years I laboured under the impression that Hyde continued to roam the back alleys of the capital after story’s end, causing mayhem and fear. I long wondered if I’d confused elements of this tale with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (which was in fact published five years after this, in 1890) or a title by Arthur Machen concerning flâneurs in London (such as The Hill of Dreams, 1907).

In truth, Jekyll and Hyde plays on the meme of a dismal, foggy London in which dark deeds occur in side streets, a meme which every fin de siècle and early 20th-century novel exhibits, from the Sherlock Holmes stories to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and beyond. It is the epitome of Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’, the notion that nature echoes the human spirit when it is actually the reverse: London’s habitual murky darkness is merely a metaphor for human depravity, if anything the cause not the effect.

My younger self then was not in sympathy with how atmosphere was created and developed in a novel; but I hoped the passage of years would allow me now to enjoy the slow build-up to a dénouement that only a reader reared in complete isolation could be in ignorance of.

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Scorn and pity

Entrance to The Oxford Arms Inn, Warwick Lane demolished in 1878. Image by Society for Photographing Relics of Old London’s record of threatened buildings (Museum of London)

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent. A Simple Tale
Penguin Modern Classics 1963 (1907)

“… perverse reason has its own logical processes.” — Author’s Note added 1920

Late Victorian London was a hotbed of political activity, especially in the 1880s when the Irish Republican Brotherhood instituted a bombing campaign that lasted a good five years. Few were killed but damage to several buildings — including Tube stations and, in 1884, Old Scotland Yard — ensured that terrorism was never far from the authorities’ concern.

One particular incident though had no clear motive, the apparent attempt to blow up Greenwich Observatory in 1894. The bomb went off prematurely killing Frenchman Martial Bourdin, but why he was carrying it and what the proposed target was remains a mystery. It is this incident that Joseph Conrad, a Pole who would assume British citizenship in 1886, chose to fictionalise as the central event of his 1907 novel The Secret Agent, an extraordinary narrative that’s not at all easy (despite its subtitle) to summarise in a few short sentences.

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Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

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London is the hero

China Miéville Kraken: an Anatomy
Pan 2010

Welcome to London
and an underground of cults,
cops, criminals, squid.

There has been precious little discussion about the significance, if any, of Kraken’s subtitle. Anatomy, which now means the science of body structure, derives from Greek roots implying cutting open and, particularly, apart (what we’d now call an autopsy). I suggest that Kraken is not just about a giant squid specimen in the Natural History Museum (or rather, for most of the book, out of the Museum) but about how it is used to cut open the underbelly of an arcane and corrupt London and expose its putrefying innards.

Ultimately this urban fantasy is about the power of words. Continue reading “London is the hero”

Loose Chippings to Battersea

OR, Dido Twite leaves London

Thames 1814
“View of the Thames off Three Cranes Wharf when frozen, Monday 31st January to Saturday 5th February 1814, on which a Fair was held attended by many Hundred Persons” (contemporary etching and aquatint dated 18th February 1814)

Imagine the scene: it is Christmas Eve, the date for the traditional Mince-pie Ceremony at Battersea Castle. An unfamiliar London custom? It’s not surprising as this is 1833 in the alternate history of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, also known as the James III sequence. James III is the Stuart monarch and he has travelled by sled from Hampton Court to be at the ceremony. On the frozen Thames.

If that seems unlikely, consider this: for two centuries we had a Little Ice Age when rivers regularly froze over. So deep and long lasting were these conditions that Frost Fairs were held on the Thames, when it was even possible to light bonfires on the ice without repercussions. The last great frost fair occurred during the winter of 1813 to 1814. A famous print shows people and tents on the ice: to the left is Three Cranes Wharf near Blackfriars in the City, and in the distance we see a bridge with around twenty stone piers; this must be Old London Bridge (Southwark Bridge wasn’t built till 1819) which had had its old houses and shops demolished in the mid 18th century.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Black Hearts in Battersea begins one “fine warm evening in late summer” with Simon leading his donkey over Southwark Bridge in London. Joan Aiken isn’t more specific than this so I’m guessing this might be at the tail-end of August. Alternatively it may be that late September is the period she means. Why? Here’s my thinking.

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Dido Twite’s London

Rose Alley
Detail from Christopher Greenwood’s 1827 London map (http://users.bathspa.ac.uk/greenwood/) Rose Alley appears here as ‘Horse Alley’

Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea is, as well as a rip-roaring adventure story with vivid characters, a novel rich in sense of place, both real and imagined. In particular London features strongly (as it does in a couple of other Wolves Chronicles) so, with the help of Greenwood’s Map of London from an Actual Survey made in the Years 1825, 1825 and 1826, I shall be exploring Dido Twite’s London as it was in this alternate history in 1833, with other places to be detailed in another post. As well-known supermarket might say, I do the research so you don’t have to … Continue reading “Dido Twite’s London”

No peace for the wicked

Victorian-London
Victorian London, with St Paul’s Cathedral

Genevieve Cogman The Invisible Library Tor 2015

Take a love of books, add a dash of fairytale, blend in some steampunk, season with distinctive characters, add essence of danger and top it off with a garnish of wittiness and voilà! we have The Invisible Library, the first of a projected trilogy featuring the extremely resourceful Irene. She is a Librarian in an extremely unusual library, one which exists out of time and place. From its rambling corridors and innumerable rooms lined with shelved books one can access any number of alternate worlds in different dimensions. The purpose of the library is to acquire, by whatever means, one copy of every book of fiction published in those alternate worlds, even multiple versions of a book where, due to variations in developments in those worlds, the resulting editions may only differ in a word, a paragraph or a chapter.

To complicate matters, the mix of magic and the mundane in each world will be different, and the magic wielded by the Librarians of a different order again. The two worlds that we are introduced to in The Invisible Library have many of the tropes of steampunk embedded in them: technology largely operated by steam power or Victorian mechanics, quasi-Dickensian costumes, detectives and shady characters roaming streets blanketed in smog, structured if sometimes fluid class divisions and, woven through all, the red strand of danger and the blue thread of magic.

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Tame by modern tastes

mist

Arthur Machen The Great God Pan Parthian Books 2010

Tame by modern tastes:
supernatural horror,
Victorian-style

When I was young I swore by H P Lovecraft while my friend Roger championed Machen. At the time I thought The Hill of Dreams pretty insipid compared to anything with Cthulhu in it. Several decades on I felt that I have to give Machen another chance, as it were, and this edition of The Great God Pan (and the two companion pieces in this volume, The White Pyramid and The Shining People) provided the opportunity.

I still now find Machen fin-de-siècle novels a taste I have yet to acquire. Continue reading “Tame by modern tastes”

Lingering alchemical imagery

Alchemical sun and moonJeanette Winterson
The Battle of the Sun
Bloomsbury Publishing 2010

It is London in 1601, but things are not quite as history would have us believe. The life of the young protagonist, Jack, is about to take a turn away from the future planned out for him, and he goes from being a pawn in a game played by others to one where his resourcefulness and bravery lead to his transformation into a person of some power.

The Battle of the Sun comes over as dreamlike, with figures from alchemical treatises, supernatural happenings and irrational actions all assuming an aura of reality and plausibility, as often happens in dreams. Jeanette Winterson’s declared mode of writing here is to let the action emerge from the situations she conjures up, and much of the first part of the book introduces characters and places and scenarios that seemingly lack resolution until a character from another of her children’s novels — Silver from Tanglewreck (2006) — intrudes herself, at which point the plot gathers momentum and a sense of direction before reaching a satisfying conclusion. Continue reading “Lingering alchemical imagery”

The lore of the ring

Buckingham Palace, with the Victoria Memorial (1911), from an old postcard
Buckingham Palace, with the Victoria Memorial (1911), from an old postcard

Kiki Hamilton The Faerie Ring Tor Teen 2011

Eighteen seventy-one was an eventful year, by many accounts. There was the disaster that was the Paris Commune, when thousands — maybe as many as twenty thousand — communards were massacred during ‘Bloody Week’ in May. But there were positives too, such as Queen Victoria opening the Albert Hall in memory of her late husband. In literature Edward Bulwer-Lytton published The Coming Race, a novel about the Vril-ya, winged super-humans who lived under the surface of the earth. This was the year too that Lewis Carroll published Alice Through the Looking Glass. 1871 is also the year in which Kiki Hamilton’s novel is set, the action taking place in a Dickensian London (Dickens had died the year before) of toffs and pickpockets. But this isn’t really a novel where social realism is to the fore, as the title strongly suggests.

Continue reading “The lore of the ring”