Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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A wondrous catalogue

salute

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities
Le città invisibili (1972)
Translated by William Weaver
Vintage 1997

In my late teens or early twenties I imbibed the notion of ‘holiday consciousness’ from something I’d read, I’m not sure what but it may have been from Colin Wilson’s The Occult, published in 1971. The concept I understood to be this: we become so familiar with personal rituals in the everyday places we inhabit that we become not only a bit jaded but in fact almost sleepwalk our way through existence. Holiday consciousness however involves the trick of seeing the familiar as though visiting it for the first time, as a tourist.

After this I took to travelling regular bus journeys and walking daily routes pretending I was not in my home town but in a different city, perhaps in a different country. I noticed new things that I hadn’t before: architectural details, pedestrian behaviours, the quality of light, a different awareness of spaces. It was like being on holiday while staying in one place, and awoke my tired senses and heightened my perception without the need of artificial stimulants or expending money on overseas travel.

I was reminded of this holiday consciousness when recently reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

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The reader in the midst of the action

sperm-whale

Nathaniel Philbrick:
In the Heart of the Sea
HarperCollins 2001

This is one of those rare non-fiction books that encourages you to continue reading in the same way that a good novel keeps you glued to the page. All the more remarkable, then, that this study gives the background to a true-life saga that inspired one of the great but arguably most difficult novels, Moby-Dick, a work that I’ve always struggled to complete.

In the Heart of the Sea (the title inspired by an extract from Melville’s book, as the end of the epilogue makes clear) has now made me all the more determined to tackle Moby-Dick again, but this time with more understanding, appreciation and stamina.

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Mainline in miniature

Southern Maid

Simon Haynes and Tim Godden:
Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway Official Guidebook
Foreword by Ben Goldacre
RH&DR 2016

Combine our fascination with small-scale models, dolls and simulacra of all kinds with the romance of railways (especially steam engines) and what do you get? Miniature railways of course! These naturally range from toy train sets to model railway layouts and beyond, including quite small locos that can pull a couple of extended families round a circular track; but I want to talk about a more ambitious type of miniature railway.

Often described (and with initials in capital letters too!) as The World’s Smallest Public Railway, the RH&DR was from the start conceived and built in the first third of the twentieth century as a miniature version of its bigger siblings, running on 15-inch gauge, with engines and rolling stock roughly one-third the size we’d expect to encounter.

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Triumphing over unbelievable odds

Wolves original
Bonnie Green: the first draft of what became The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/wolves-the-beginning/)

August 24th 1953. I’ve just had my fifth birthday and the family are preparing to up sticks from Bristol in the West Country back to Hong Kong on the other side of the world; here I will spend the next five years, having already spent three years previously on Kowloon, that peninsula pointing like a finger to the island that was once a Crown Colony.

September 4th 1953. On her twenty-ninth birthday Joan Aiken installs an old table in a corner of her bedroom in Kent, and sits down to write the first chapter of her projected novel Bonnie Green in an old exercise book.

“Now at last I can write my book, and make it the most marvellous adventure ever!  I can fill it with all my favourite things – not just one dreadful villain but a whole pack of them; castles and dungeons, banquets and ballrooms, shipwrecks and secret passages, and above all – indefatigable orphans facing unbelievable odds and triumphing over it all!”

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Westward Ho!

Oz
Map of the Countries near to the Land of Oz

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet …
— Kipling 1889

Many years ago I had a Chinese poster from the Communist era showing the interior of a classroom. On a wall was a world map which — and this is what particularly interested me — positioned China dead centre. In a flash I understood where much of that country’s paranoia came from: to the left was Western Europe and Soviet Russia and its satellites, to the right was the USA, and it was quite clear that Red China felt completely beset by rivals or foes. Are we surprised that Chinese corporations are now busy exploiting commercial opportunities all around the Indian Ocean, South America and elsewhere if their maps continue to suggest China’s a beleaguered country?

It was a natural step for me to realise that America’s own Cold War paranoia stemmed from its world view, US maps showing the country surrounded by Chinese communists to its west and, to its east, communist Eastern Europe and Russian Soviets. No wonder conservative Americans worried about Reds under the bed and commie sympathisers.

On the other hand, the British psyche was long buoyed up by its being centrally placed on its world maps, the globe’s chronology even being set by Greenwich Mean Time. Huge swathes of the world were coloured pink — Canada, bits of Africa, Australia and innumerable colonies and possessions — until, in the mid-20th century, that Empire was slowly but surely eased from its hands. Right now Britain also feels embattled, cut loose from its former Empire, increasingly casting itself adrift from Europe and encouraged to believe itself menaced by ‘swarms’ and ‘floods’ of immigrants.

It’s interesting how we create and maintain a view of the world from our own perspective, despite Donne’s reminder that  Continue reading “Westward Ho!”

Armchair travelling

camelot
Camelot by Aubrey Beardsley, detail from How Queen Guenever rode on Maying

Neil Fairbairn
A Traveller’s Guide to the Kingdoms of Arthur
Evans Brothers Ltd 1983

Geoffrey Ashe
The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain
Gothic Image 1997

Neil Fairbairn’s 1983 Traveller’s Guide inevitably invited comparisons with Geoffrey Ashe’s A Guidebook to Arthurian Britain (1980 and 1983, confusingly reissued as The Traveller’s Guide to Arthurian Britain in 1997). This would be unfortunate as the two are different animals, each with its own particular strengths and weaknesses, though both include illustrations and maps.

The first obvious thing about Fairbairn’s Guide is Continue reading “Armchair travelling”