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.

Continue reading “Tales within tales”

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.

Continue reading “A wondrous catalogue”

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.

Continue reading “The reader in the midst of the action”

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.

Continue reading “Mainline in miniature”

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!”

Continue reading “Triumphing over unbelievable odds”

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”

A new Troy?

pagoda Jan Morris Hav:
comprising Last Letters from Hav;
Hav of the Myrmidons

Faber & Faber 2006

Despite irritating minor typos (not even corrected in the paperback edition) this is a wonderful fiction obsessing on dualities: ancient and modern, East and West, Light and Dark, land and sea, transparency and the occluded. The addition of Hav of the Myrmidons in 2006 to the 1985 Last Letters from Hav (presumably written as if to Morris’ partner Elizabeth) adds to that sense of duality: as the earlier Letters ended a half year of somnolent unreality with the brutal suddenness of the Intervention, so does the mirroring second half of Hav end a six day tour of puzzling contradictions with a brusque departure. Hav appears to be an independent state on a peninsula of Asia Minor, close enough to the known site of Troy to have been considered, Morris suggests, a contender; like Troy it has been coveted by other nation states, squabbled over by invading armies and temporarily ruled by transient empires.

Hav itself is like an amalgam of all those liminal territories such as Hong Kong or Trieste that Morris herself has visited for her travelogues, and resonant with echoes of a few other polities such as Istanbul or Malta which have been at the crossroads of cultures. The Hav of the 1980s is a little quaint, a relic of its past histories but decaying in its inertia. While no less Kafkaesque post-9/11 Hav no longer retains its picture postcard attraction: all that has mostly been swept away by the sinister but shadowy forces behind the Intervention, leaving tourists in a modernist enclave and a population that is even more reticent to disclose what, if anything, is controlling Hav. Continue reading “A new Troy?”

The last visions

San Marino flag
The flag of San Marino showing the three towers of Monte Titano

Antal Szerb The Third Tower: journeys in Italy
(A harmadik torony)
Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix
Pushkin Press 2014 (1936)

I felt bereft when Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy stopped mid-sentence only in sight of Lyon. Mr Yorick was due to travel down western Italy via Turin, Milan, Florence and Rome as far as Naples but, unhappily for all, the full account was cut short by the small matter of the writer’s death. Fortunately there was Antal Szerb’s The Third Tower recently published in English to console me, though the Hungarian’s travels were essentially down the east coast of Italy only as far south as San Marino. But, just as with Sterne’s writings, this was as much — if not more — about the person than the places visited.

Continue reading “The last visions”

Eclipse of empire

Jan Morris Hong Kong: the End of an Empire
Penguin 1990 (1989)

Even though the cover of the edition I have sports the subtitle ‘Epilogue to an Empire’, the correct subtitle to Jan Morris’ Hong Kong is ‘The End of an Empire’. The latter is a more accurate description in that even this 1990 updating still long preceded the handing over of the colony to mainland China in 1997, the date that is a truer encapsulation of the eclipse of Empire.

What this revision does do, however, is to take into account the social and cultural repercussions of the Tiananmen Square massacre which took place in the year which intervened between hardback and paperback, an inauspicious augury for the run-up to 1997 which Morris discusses in the closing pages.

I had two justifications to read this book, if any were needed. Continue reading “Eclipse of empire”

A Himalayan pilgrimage

Mount Kailas, Wikipedia Commons
Mount Kailas, Wikipedia Commons

Colin Thubron  To a Mountain in Tibet Vintage 2012 (2011)

I came across To a Mountain in Tibet while searching unsuccessfully for Charles Allen’s The Search for Shangri-La: a Journey into Tibetan History (1999) which a while ago I’d had to return to the library before completing. I nevertheless found Thubron’s account of his journey fascinating, all the more inspiring as it was accomplished by a man in his seventies. Despite privations and cold and altitude, most of which he refers to but never with any sense of self-pity, he undertakes a voyage largely on foot up to and around Mount Kailas or Kailash in Tibet, the sacred mountain of Eastern traditions and legendary source of four sacred rivers (the Ganges, the Indus, the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej); and in straightforward but poetic language he describes for us the landscape he sees, the peoples he meets, the traditions that imbue every physical feature he negotiates, in such a way that we feel we are there with him.

‘Pilgrimage’ is not quite adequate a word for his trek. Continue reading “A Himalayan pilgrimage”

Humoresque and the picturesque

Pyrenees

Tony Hawks A Piano in the Pyrenees:
the Ups and Downs of an Englishman in the French Mountains
Ebury Press 2006

How can this book fail for me? I’m a pianist, I’ve walked in the French Pyrenees and skied on the Spanish side, plus I passed a crew about to shoot location sequences for the film of Tony Hawks’ Round Ireland with a Fridge (in West Wales — where else?). So I couldn’t pass up on reading this humorous account of the comedian/musician/writer buying a house near the border with Spain and building a swimming pool, honing his pianistic skills and performing music, making new friends and seeking true love.

Hawks’ story starts a little slowly but settles, literally, once he is living in his new Pyrenean home and interacting with the locals. Continue reading “Humoresque and the picturesque”

A mind traveller’s vademecum

Baedeker 1937 Great Britain guide (Wikipedia Commons)
Baedeker 1937 Great Britain guide (Wikipedia Commons)

Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi
The Dictionary of Imaginary Places
Macmillan 1980 (1987, 1999)

I fell upon this book when it was first published like a punter attacking an ice-cream during the interval in an over-hot theatre. Just the title had me drooling, and once inside the book I was in seventh heaven. First of all it took places described in a range of literary works as literally true by giving each a Baedeker-style travel guide entry. Then, like any good Baedeker it provided maps and charts giving visual aids to familiar and unfamiliar locations. There have been at least two revised editions since 1980 but this was the first attempt to give an overview of dystopias, utopias, fantasy worlds and comic geographies from different cultures, languages and centuries. The mock-seriousness is sometimes leavened with equally tongue-in-cheek humour though I found that at times the terseness of some entries could be wearing.

Just a few examples of entries, almost at random, may give you a flavour. Continue reading “A mind traveller’s vademecum”

An unappetising mishmash

wingedWyvern, or biped dragon

Richard Freeman Explore Dragons Heart of Albion Press 2006

There is a universal fascination for dragons that is hard to quantify: they seem to appeal to folklorists, fantasy fans and fossil hunters alike. C S Lewis famously wrote a short piece of alliterative verse which neatly encapsulates the kind of reaction that discussion of dragons can give rise to:

We were talking of DRAGONS, Tolkien and I | In a Berkshire bar. The big workman | Who had sat silent and sucked his pipe | All the evening, from his empty mug | With gleaming eye glanced towards us: | “I seen ’em myself!” he said fiercely.

Whether you’ve seen ’em or not, you will no doubt have something to say about them, whether they exist, let alone existed, what size or colour they were, whether they breathed fire or merely had a poisonous bite, if they had wings. And any book about dragons therefore raises expectations in all of us; will Explore Dragons fulfil those expectations for anyone? Continue reading “An unappetising mishmash”