At the margins

Obscured view looking northeast to the Black Mountains in Wales, beyond which lies England

Wandering among Words 8: March

No, this is not a post about the month marking the start of spring in the northern hemisphere. Nor is it about walking determinedly from A to B. So what am I referring to?

I’m talking about a liminal space. ‘March’ in this sense is related to the Latin margo, “edge”, giving us the words “margin”, “marginal”, and so on: it can be a buffer, a No Man’s Land or Demilitarised Zone between two states; rulers of such spaces were typically termed margrave, marchese, marqués, marquis or marquess in medieval Europe.

Marches fascinate me. It helps that I live in the Welsh Marches, the lands that straddle the centuries-old fluctuating border between Wales and its bigger neighbour, England. Just like Scotland with its Borders and Ireland with The Pale the Welsh Marches have a long history of disputed control, first between the Britons and the incomers of Anglo-Saxon Mercia (“the land of the border people”) and later with powerful Norman lords asserting themselves against both the king of England and independent Welsh princes.

Here was built the mighty earthwork of Offa’s Dyke to demarcate Mercian territory from Wales; here briefly flourished the heroes who fought against English rule, historic figures like Owain Llawgoch and Owain Glyndŵr, here nestle sites traditionally associated with the legendary King Arthur.

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The hand of the poet

Hereford's Mappa Mundi (public domain)
Hereford’s Mappa Mundi (public domain)

Owen Sheers: Resistance
Faber and Faber 2008 (2007)

‘What is it?’ she asked.

Albrecht’s voice came from behind her, out of the darkness. ‘The world,’ he said. ‘Or at least an idea of it.’

Maps and journeys dominate this novel. Historic maps of the medieval world. A route across southern England. The cul-de-sac that is an isolated valley in the Welsh Marches. The pathways of human memories. The unmapped future when one steps off the end of the known world. The past as it might have been if history had taken a different direction.

All fictions could be said to be alternative histories, in that they describe people who may not have existed and events that may never have happened in our own physical world. Resistance however sits firmly in the alternate history genre given that it envisages what might have happened if Nazi Germany had finally triumphed; it’s a popular theme, explored for example in Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Sheers’ novel Hitler’s armies have seen success both on the Eastern Front and in Western Europe, and have begun their successful invasion of Britain in autumn 1944. The novel’s action focuses on the Olchon valley, an isolated location north of Abergavenny, and it is here that a group of German soldiers are sent on a clandestine mission by Himmler and where they mysteriously encounter an all-female community.

Foregrounded are the German officer, Albrecht Wolfram, and Sarah Lewis, the farmer abandoned by her husband Tom; the latter, we surmise, has joined a covert Auxiliary Unit manned by insurgents — as the Germans call them — to maintain resistance against the occupiers. Sarah and the other women (Maggie, Mary, Menna and Bethan) are completely in the dark as to why their men have left, but with winter approaching they have no choice but to get on as best they can with the demands of hill farming. It comes as a complete shock when Captain Wolfram and his men appear. What do they want, and why are they here?

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Breezing through Roman ruins

Excavations at Uriconium (Wroxeter) by Francis Bedford (photo: public domain)
Excavations at Uriconium by Francis Bedford (photo of hypocaust and Old Work public domain)

Ellis Peters City of Gold and Shadows Heron Books 1982 (1973)

Take an assortment of singular characters, one missing person and a generous helping of archaeology; when you blend them together you’ll likely get something like this, a whodunit by Ellis Peters set in her favourite area — the Welsh Marches — and based on the ruins of a fictional Roman city that is rather reminiscent of Wroxeter in Shropshire. Though I’ve not knowingly read any of her work before (certainly before I was aware that this was the twelfth in a series) I wasn’t disappointed in this offering — what would be known in North America as a cozy mystery — especially as it worked very well as a standalone novel.

An essential aspect of a ‘cozy’ is that it often features a strong, intelligent woman as amateur sleuth; and here it is Charlotte Rossignol. Half-French, a classical musician at what one hopes is the start of a successful career, she is drawn by the concerns that a lawyer (“like a very well-turned-out troll from under some Scandinavian mountain”) has over her missing archaeologist uncle, Alan Morris. Visiting the subject of his latest (or last?) monograph, the ruins of Aurae Phiala near Moulden village in Midshire, she makes the acquaintance of a number of very distinctive characters, any of whom could be responsible for some of the odd incidents that start to occur. Who is Gus Hambro, and why is he behaving suspiciously? What is schoolboy Gerry Boden up to? What’s the nature of the relationship between site custodian Steve Paviour and his young wife Lesley? Is gardener Orlando Benyon all that he seems to be? What does graduate student Bill Lawrence know? How does DCI George Felse deal with the strange events that closely follow one another? And do we ever find out what happened to Charlotte’s missing uncle?

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A liminal world

redhouse

Mark Haddon The Red House Vintage 2013 (2012)

A week in a holiday cottage away from the city; what could be more idyllic? Escape to the country, forget your woes, chill out, enjoy yourself.

Except it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? Because when you go you inevitably — if unconsciously — pack up your troubles in your luggage. And then you spend the week trying to ignore them, only to have them appear whenever you least expect it, or be picked over by others you hoped you’d never see again. Hell is other people, Sartre declared. But true hell is people with destructive secrets. Hell is you.

Siblings Angela and Richard have been estranged for some time. A father they barely knew, a recently deceased mother who had dementia, then an opportunity for them and their respective families to come together on neutral ground, to become re-acquainted, to rebuild bridges. A liminal world: a holiday just before the 2010 UK general election and a change of government; a cottage on the borders of Wales and England; the world turning, ghosts emerging to haunt the living; a solitary fox appearing, and the Venerable Bede’s sparrow recalled: Continue reading “A liminal world”

Two societies, two cultures, two lives

caldicot

Kevin Crossley-Holland Arthur: the Seeing Stone Orion Publishing 2001 (2000)

If you haven’t read this then you may be in for a treat. Following its publication in hardback it deservedly won the Smarties Prize bronze medal and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year in 2001. Everything that the reviewers quoted at the front of the paperback say is spot on. So why the accolades?

This Arthur is living in the Welsh Marches as the 12th century turns into the thirteenth. His life is paralleled by the young Arthur of legend, Continue reading “Two societies, two cultures, two lives”