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What can I add to what has already been said about this mighty tome?  Is it really as good as people are saying?  Yup.  Is it too long, as some critics have cavilled?  Nope.  Not a wasted word.  Do you care if you haven’t read the first two?  Probably not.  Does one read the closing chapters with increasing dread?  Absolutely; even though you know it doesn’t end well for our man. Were you expecting wit and a touch of bawdy too?  Good for  you.  Hilary Mantel‘s The mirror & the light (4th Estate, 2020), the final volume in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, is a masterpiece.

She takes you there.  Simple as that.  You’re in his head, you’re in his time.  It’s like she’s channelling him.  As in the first two books, as soon as you fall in with it that every time she writes ‘he’, unless she makes it quite clear it is not, it is all coming through Cromwell’s sharply focussed  eyes and mind, coming at his frequently punishing pace.  In the current action it’s all in the present tense.  And when he relaxes, on the rare occasions when he does, you do too.

Not that he’s necessarily the good guy, he’ll readily admit: “My list of sins is so extensive that the recording angel has run out of tablets, and sits in the corner with his quill blunted, wailing and ripping out his curls.”  There’s no hiding his ruthless side, the acquisitive social climber who enjoys power; it’s just that at Court he’s better, and especially more competent, than the rest.  And, sigh, a lot of good it does him in the end, at the age of 55.

Even the ‘Cast of Characters’ – how increasingly I appreciate such Dramatis Personae in big books – covering 5 categorised pages, Mantel delivers with a touch of class.  First category: ‘The recently dead‘.  Led by Ann Boleyn, Queen of England; followed by a sub-list headed ‘Her supposed lovers‘.  Hell of an opening line too; no ‘New readers start here’ here: “Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away.”  And we’re off.  You gather this instant death is a mercy he managed to secure for her.  Let the power plays commence again.

The mirror & the light is just one rivetting tour de force after another.  From court life to the streets, she takes you there.  Where to begin?  The opening of Thomas a Becket’s tomb – a huge money-spinner for the monks of Canterbury – the examination of the relics, explodes off the page.  Cromwell’s interrogation is pure Line of Duty … but you know it’s a stitch up.  Memories of his eventful past – in Putney, around Europe, flood in – especially after a fever he picked up decades before in Italy makes a come-back and derails him at just the wrong time when Norfolk and his bishop chum Stephen Gardiner (closet Catholics) push through The 6 Articles, legislation confirming it is still the blood and body of Christ in church.  Flexibility has ever been his watchword, but that he cannot go back on, and he will not break faith with the necessity of an English Bible, trying to protect poor old Tyndale printing it in exile.

Hilary Mantel‘s qualities as a writer are all present and correct at macro- and micro-level.  Cromwell’s observations sparkle with dark sardonic wit.  Here she describes the members of one faction at Henry VIII’s court:

They are all Howards, or Howard kin, and one is the Duke of Norfolk’s young half-brother, who shares his name: Thomas Howard the Lesser. No danger of confusing the two. The lesser is the worst poet at court. The greater never rhymed in his life.

His relationship with Chapuys, the Emperor’s ambassador, a Frenchman, who, as in previous volumes still (hurrah!) cannot pronounce his name, calling him ‘Cremuel’ throughout, is not too far removed from that of Aziriphale and Crowley in Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.  They recognise they are playing a game, albeit one with huge consequences: “… But ambassadors have been murdered in the street before now. I only mention it.  The ambassador bows his head. He picks at his salad. A leaf of sweet lettuce, a spear of bitter endive.”  Cromwell recognises Chapuys’s astuteness.  He says of Cromwell’s boss, “Henry is a man of great endowments, lacking only consistency, reason and sense.”  And here they are talking about bringing Mary, the future queen, back into the fold, and he, Chapuys, sums up the task ahead of Cromwell:

‘Let me be exact about what you ask of her. She must recognise that her mother’s marriage was of no effect, and that she, though the king’s eldest child, is not his heir. She must swear to uphold, as the king’s successor, the little daughter of Boleyn, whom he has just killed.’

The barbed nature of how Henry VIII’s court sees Cromwell’s position of power, in the light of his lowly origins, is on display, and revelled in, throughout.  The Earl of Surrey tries to lord it: “‘But you, Cromwell, you would not understand it – the friendship that is amongst men of ancient lineage and noble blood.’  I understand, he thinks, your nose is running like any stable-lad’s.”  After another promotion, he chats with Margaret Pole:

‘… I am sure you can come to think of me as Lord Privy Seal. And should I ever forget I was born one of the lower sort, I will presume upon our friendship, madam, and beg you to remind me.’
That jolts you, he thought: ‘our friendship:’ that sickens your stomach. That a Putney boy should presume.

What else, in passing?  There is Cromwell’s delightful sparring with Jane Rochford, his sometime informer among the women at court (you should have married her, advises this scribe).  Hans Holbein, the portrait artist, shipped off to Europe to effectively make the equivalent of a Tinder pic of Anne of Cleves for Henry to consider (another brilliant scene, that, by the way: Henry’s first actual sight of her, or rather hers of him).

There’s a lengthy cynical yet reasonable enough reading of how the Northern Rebellion (a serious threat to Henry) started, from a drunken night in a market town that just blossomed as bandwagons are jumped on:

Now they go rattling through the streets, proclaiming the ballad of Worse-was-it Never. There was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and pedlars honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of Parliament. Reforming bishops. People who use English to talk to God.

There are inevitably broad winks to today; how could she resist?  Cromwell watches Henry educate Jane Seymour, his third queen, in the matter of how the rich get away with it:

The king leans forward. ‘The burdens of tax do not rest on the shoulders of labourers, or small husbandmen. Dives, the rich man, knows and has always known how to pass off his interests as the interests of Lazarus, the beggar.’

So much more to praise, but I’ll leave it there.  There is a chilling author’s note at the end detailing what happened later.  Most of the players died before their time one way or another, though Cromwell’s survived well enough, one of his consistent aims in life.

 

 

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Clean, smokeless, efficient, that’s dandelion wine,” is what Grandpa tells 12-tear old Douglas Spaulding and younger brother Tom.  It’s a whole lot more than that.  I loved reading Ray Bradbury‘s Dandelion wine (1957).  Wallowed in it.  Small town America, Green Town, Illinois, 1928; population 26.349 give or take one or two by the end of the book.  Shall we say, Under Milk Wood written by Mark Twain?  I just did.

This is the summer Doug realised he was alive.  After a genial wrestle with his brother he suddenly gets it: “Birds flickered like skipped stones across the vast, inverted pond of heaven” and a dozen other realisations, and “the million pores on his body opened“.  The conclusion?  “I’m really alive! he thought. I never knew it before, or, if I did I don’t remember.  He yelled it loud, but silent, a dozen times. Think of it, think of it!

He resolves to keep a summer notebook (the stationery store calls what he’s writing in a tablet) recording it all.  Which is not what Dandelion wine is – not his verbatim notebook, nor is he present for a lot of what goes on – but his plan for it gives a good idea of what to expect:

Thinking about it, noticing it, is new. You do things and don’t watch. Then all of a sudden you look and see what you’re doing and it’s the first time, really. I’m going to divide the summer up in two parts. First part of this tablet is titled: RITES AND CEREMONIES. The first root beer pop of the year. The first running barefoot in the grass of the year. The first time almost drowning in the lake of the year. First water-melon. First mosquito. First harvest of dandelions. Those are the things we do over and over and over and never think. Now here in back, like I said, is DISCOVERIES AND REVELATIONS or maybe ILLUMINATIONS, that’s a swell word, or INTUITIONS, okay? In other words, you do an old familiar thing, like bottling dandelion wine, and you put that under RITES AND CEREMONIES. And then you think about it, and what you think, crazy or not, you put under DISCOVERIES AND REVELATIONS. Here’s what I got on the wine: Every time you bottle it, you got a whole chunk of 1928 put away safe.’

About dandelions, says Grandfather: “Every year … They run amuck; I let them. Pride of lions in the yard … A common flower, a weed that no one sees, yes. But for us a noble thing, the dandelion.”   Now, I’m no great gardener, but I have to admit for me summer is a constant battle against dandelions.  The bastards.  And you get people preaching, No leave ’em alone.  Bees love ’em.  They’re the first flowers to bloom and the bees need all the help they can get.  So vide what Douglas’s Grandfather says in this wonderful book, and being a big fan of bees (our neighbours over the back have beehives; now I know what’s going on with the bees this time of year I look forward to the experience when they harmlessly swarm, shall be disappointed if they don’t), yes, this year I decided to leave the dandelions, to let them be.  We’ve had a few bees this year already, and we’ve had flowers other than dandelions too, but have I seen a single bee gorging on a dandelion?  No, so it’s war again.  Don’t I fancy making some dandelion wine?  I can live with poetic dandelions (wasn’t Wordworth’s first draft dandelions?) and feel no contradiction.  And also, wait until you see the recipe (see below).  

Dumb book cover. You make the wine from the petals.

So ‘dandelion wine‘ – what’s the magic of which Doug writes?:

The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered. And now Douglas knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that some of his new knowledge, some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks or months …  […]

And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skin of dust, would stand the dandelion wine. Peer through it at the wintry day – the snow melted to grass, the trees were reinhabited with bird, leaf, and blossoms like a continent of butterflies breathing on the wind. And peering through, colour sky from iron to blue.

Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.

That thing about bottling up summer for winter days.  I guess you could say the same about all wines – it never occurred to me before – but what it is in Dandelion Wine is their summer days, the bottles resting in their cellar.

These 1928 days begin with the ritual of the new summer shoes.  Have to be new – “the boy’s abandoned winter shoes, heavy with forgotten rains and long-melted snows” – because last year’s tennis shoes have lost their bounce.  Doug leaves the shoe shop owner thinking of antelopes and gazelles.

They urge local handyman-inventor Leo Auffman, to come up with a Happiness Machine, a lovely soft fantasy with a lovely list of what should go in it.  The men laugh, but Leo has his reasons for trying:

‘How have we used machines so far, to make people cry? Yes! Every time man and the machine look like they will get on all right – boom! Someone adds a cog, airplanes drop bombs on us, cars run us off cliffs. So is the boy wrong to ask? No! No…’ 

It does not go well.  Nor does the trip they urge on Miss Fern and Miss Roberta’s to take in their Green Machine, a car that a shyster has sold them that they are frankly scared of.  They befriend their own time machine, old Colonel Freeleigh in his big old house, whose stories take them back as far as the Civil War; he tells them he will choose when he’s ready to die.  Which he does, and he’s not the only one. This is a bitter-sweet ride. A good friend of Doug’s family leaves for the big city, and he misses his summer chum of old. 

More sadness at the replacement of Green Town’s trolley with a bus:

‘They can’t take off the trolley. Don’t make the same kind of noise. Don’t have tracks or wires, don’t throw sparks, don’t pour sand on the tracks, don’t have the same colours, don’t have a bell, don’t let down a step like a trolley does!’

On its last day in service it goes out with a glorious free ride and a picnic at the end of the line.

And many other happenings and adventures.  Old rivals keenly contest the annual Honeysuckle Lodge Presidential election with allegations of witchery and a tumultuous final meeting that at one stage has the members “not knowing if they’d just returned from a funeral or were on their way to a ball.”  Local newspaper reporter Bill Forrester spends time with aged recluse Helen Loomis, whose photo when she was an actress he used to have on his wall.  They bond over old fashioned lime-vanilla flavour ice cream.

What else?  The mysterious Jonas ‘the junk man’, who has a story of his own, roaming the neighbourhood with his horse Ned, dispensing wisdom and medicinal advice; he has a part to play when Tom is seriously ill with a fever.  The delights of Grandma’s indescribably fine cooking, temporarily scuppered when Aunt Rose tidies her kitchen.  The spectre of the murderer maybe still on the loose on the edge of town.

It is there, at the Ravine – “the very end of civilisation” – with his mother, that Douglas gets an inkling (even though he and Tom have talked about old people being a different species) of the not so great generational divide:

Did she, too, feel that intangible menace, that groping out of darkness, that crouching malignancy down below? Was there, then, no strength in growing up? No peace in being an adult? No sanctuary in life? No flesh strong enough to withstand nightmares and midnights?

The generations are inevitably something of a theme in Dandelion Wine.  One of the oldies says about the ‘beginning of wisdom’: “When you’re seventeen you know everything. When you’re twenty-seven if you still know everything you’re still seventeen.” But also: It is the privilege of old people to seem to know everything. But it’s an act and a mask …” Grandpa knows a few things; indeed, Doug’s mother and father don’t figure much in the story (too busy working, maybe?).  Reporter Bill is probably their age:

‘That’s the trouble with your generation,’ said Grandpa. ‘Bill, I’m ashamed of you, a newspaper man. All the things in life that were put here to savour, you eliminate. Save time, save work, you say … Bill, when you’re my age you’ll find out the little savours and little things count more than big ones. A walk on a spring morning is better than an eighty-mile ride in a hopped-up car, you know why? Because it’s full of flavours, full of a lot of things growing …’

[As it happens I’ve been re-acquainting myself with Soft Machine‘s self-titles first album of 1968,, an album so full of so much invention.  The track Why are we sleeping?:  “It begins with a blessing and ends with a curse / Making life easy by making it worse.’  Just thought I’d put that in]. 

More from Grandpa, and the poetry Ray Bradbury can bring:

“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher. Nobody guesses, nobody accuses, nobody knows, but there you are. Plato in the peonies, Socrates force-growing his own hemlock. A man toting a sack of blood manure across his lawn is kin to Atlas letting the world spin easy on his shoulder.”

I loved reading this glorious, folksy, charming book.  A big thank you to Annie Spence, who sings the glories and joy Dandelion Wine brings in her witty and fun celebration of reading, Dear Fahrenheit 451: a librarian’s love letters and break-up notes to her books (2017).  You want feelgood in these weird times?  “‘Next year’s going to be even bigger, days will be brighter, nights longer and darker, more people dying, more babies born, and me in the middle of it all.'” Doug tells Tom.  Tom, no fool he, comes back with “You and two zillion other people, Doug, remember.'”  And us.

The Pencils

Doug makes a lot out of that he’s writing with Ticonderoga Pencils.  This had to be worth investigating, and aren’t I glad I did.  ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most beautiful functional website ever.  Go visit, please.  Scroll down and keep on scrolling down: https://weareticonderoga.com/

The Wine

It takes so many dandelions.  Many recipes on the web.  If you use just the petals it’s less bitter apparently, though complete flowers can be used. A recipe from the Guardian says to use the petals from enough complete dandelion flowers to loosely fill a gallon container.  A gallon container’s worth of dandelion flowers.  And 4.5 litres of water / 1.5kg sugar / Zest and juice of 4 lemons / 500g raisins, chopped or squashed by putting in a carrier bag and pounding, or 200ml can of white grape juice concentrate / 1 sachet of white wine yeast / Yeast nutrient.

Another recipe also mentions orange juice / fresh lemon juice / fresh lime juice / powdered ginger / coarsely chopped orange and lemon zest (strictly no pith) / loads of sugar.

A dandelion wine soundtrack

I had music ringing in my ears from the moment I picked up the book, but could I find it?  First I thought it might be The Band, but no, fine though that is (a highlight of the disappointing third album), that is Strawberry wine.  The I thought – “Let the sun shine bright”? – an old Stephen Foster tune, but that’s My old Kentucky home, Goodnight, but no, no dandelion wine (though in searching found a particularly fine version of the song by the late great John Prine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYQ4WnFG_0I)

Then it came to me.  What took me so long?  Of course, it’s Randy Newman infectious Old Kentucky home, on Twelve Songs (1974,) with the added bonus of Ry Cooder on guitar:

In fact not a particularly suitable accompaniment to Ray Bradbury’s book at all.  First line: “Dandelion and turpentine wine“; it’s a character song about getting pissed, being unpleasant and not giving a damn.  One of Newman’s beautifully constructed feel-good but not actually worthy stuff happening songs. There’s a Johnny Cash version around too, for what it’s worth.

For completion’s sake, without looking too hard here are three more songs called Dandelion wine.  Pursue them at your leisure.  Written by Tony Hicks, The Hollies’ Dandelion wine is an object lesson in why English groups should not try to address American themes directly (https://youtube.com/watch?v=3DrLWEH3zCM).  There’s a lovely bit of pastorale from Gregory Allan Isakov, an aching love song (though he’s ‘drunk in a field’ too) accompanied by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pj367XUjd_4).  And finally there’s Ron Sexsmith, another song of lost but warmly remembered love (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HowrXvlAmBU); includes the lines, “How to take a field of dandelions / And make dandelion wine” – I think there’s a fair chance he’s read the book.

Stay safe, people.

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So what do you do when you finish reading the second volume of Philip Pullman‘s epic Book of Dust trilogy?  The easy rhythm of his prose is hypnotic (ease, never easy).  After 704 pages of all kinds of exhilaration, the comedown is immense: where to turn, what can I possibly read next?  For a while you just see a literary vacuum; I know others have felt like this too.  Is there a more exhilarating thriller writer in out-and-out John Buchan mode to be found?  (Rhetorical question: I don’t know, I don’t read thrillers; there are reasons for that).  Never mind the intellectual and emotional stimulation, and the imagination and invention Pullman delivers?

And then you groan at the wait – how long? – before the next and alleged last volume appears and you curse the man because The Secret Commonwealth (David Fickling, 2019) leaves you hanging there, both with all that perilous striving, the sheer adventure of it all and many miles to travel, but also incapable of coming to any conclusion as to how you can feel about it, because the outcome of conflict in Lyra between science and (for want of a better word) the soul, is not so certain either.

I’m not going to bother with too much background here; I’m going to assume you, dear reader, are familiar with the books of which I speak.  In the parallel universe of Brytain, Lyra Belacqua, the baby at the centre of the first volume of The Book of Dust is now Lyra Silvertongue, 20 years old, a student at Oxford University.  She is separated from ‘Pan’ – Pantalaimon – her daemon (a weird sort of soul buddy now stabilised in the form of a pine marten), the separation a source of anguish for them both (and great sadness, for them and us).  I’d forgotten, to tell the truth, this physical split had happened to the teenage Lyra – with the discovery of the ‘Republic of Love – at the end of Pullman’s earlier His Dark Materials trilogy.  The dastardly Magisterium (not so loosely based on a militant Papacy) is still out for world domination, as indeed is some other authority (called The Authority), out in Central Asia and the Middle East.  It’s all to do with attar of roses (though some very particular ones), which might just also involve the all important – more than a touch of particle physics here – Dust as well.  And here’s little old Oakley Street – Lyra recruited – fighting the good fight based in Blighty: “What did this decrepit, poverty stricken, understaffed body think it was doing, taking on the entire Magisterium?

The Amber Spyglass – the last volume of the His Dark Materials trilogy

The thing about the His Dark Materials and Book of Dust trilogies is that they are published by a publisher specialising in children’s books.  Pullman’s books are not – dread term – teen-fiction, nor, for all the fantastic goings-on, are they genre fantasy; all-comers are welcome.  And gratefully too; you forget the target audience – ergo instant classics.  These adventures are also, in passing, a primer in moral philosophy, a young person’s guide to life and thought, no less.  Without pulpit or intrusive pedagogy, I hasten to add.  But with some very timely occasional swearing (social education – see!).  If The Secret Commonwealth does spell its lessons out, then they flow.  There are plenty of situations to parallel the real world.

Here’s Coram, a main man among the Gyptians on his boat in the Fens, explaining to on-the-run Lyra the contradiction at the heart of the game, which I’d say is also as good a description of the dilemma the modern democracies find themselves in as you’ll find anywhere :

Sort of a stalemate. But it’s worse’n that. The other side’s got an energy that our side en’t got. Comes from their certainty about being right. If you got that certainty, you’ll be willing to do anything to bring about the end you want. It’s the oldest human problem, Lyra, an’ it’s the difference between good and evil. Evil can be unscrupulous and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ‘em.’

The Books

You remember the alethiometer?  Did I mention the alethiometer?  Okay, one of the reasons Lyra is so important is that – as introduced in the His Dark Materials trilogy – she can work the alethiometer, an extremely rare quality in a person.  It’s a mechanical magic box – a sort of slide rule-cum-astrological chart-cum- I Ching cum-Hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy – that can somehow reveal all sorts of things to the operator.  There used to be an elaborate methodology to its operation but a new method has evolved, which takes a lot more out of the user.  It’s a bone of contention between Lyra and her daemon, Pantalaimon (you remember Pantalaimon).  He doesn’t like it:

‘I don’t like the new method, Lyra’.
‘But why?’
‘Because when you do it you look as if you’re lost. I can’t tell where you are. And I don’t think you know where you are. You need more imagination.’
‘What?’
‘If you had more imagination it would be better. But -’
‘What are you saying? You’re saying I haven’t got any imagination?’
‘You’re trying to live without it, that’s what I’m saying. it’s those books again. One of them saying it doesn’t exist, the other saying it doesn’t matter anyway.’

“Those books …”  Those books are a crucial component of The Secret Commonwealth.  They are also prime candidates for a prominent place in The Invisible Library.  We will return to those books, but first we must take a detour to visit The Invisible Library.

The Invisible Library

 

That’s a screen capture from the home page of The Invisible Library, one of the great hopefully collaborative

“The universe (which others call the library) is composed of an indefinite number of hexagonal galleries …”

databases from the early days of the internet.  It describes its contents and mission brilliantly.  It’s not easy to find in search engines these days, not least because of a set of books by Genevieve Cogman, published by Tor, with the series title The Invisible Library – 6 titles since 2015 – featuring “Irene … a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities“, to quote from the back of the first. (Needless to say, it’s on my To-be-read pile).

The original Invisible Library, the creation of one Brian Quinette, opened in the Spring of 2001 and suddenly closed in the summer of 2006.  It has been preserved in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine at: http://web.archive.org/web/20041130030237/http://www.invisiblelibrary.com/

The good people at the Invisible Library, Malibu Lake Branch briefly picked up the baton:
https://nodotus.yolasite.com/invisible-library.php
and they also mention another effort founded August 2008 (on Blogger):
http://invislib.blogspot.com/
which, like the Malibu Lake Branch, doesn’t seem to have lasted out the year.
There is a fairly recent Facebook page for the Malibu Lake Branch, which updated its cover photo last December (“It is not down in any map – True places never are“) with 11 followers (including me) and no action since, though they say they are working on it.

Here’s Lucien, Librarian of the Dreaming, in Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed The Sandman series of graphic novels

Lucien oversees a collection of every book that has ever been imagined – even if that book was never published or even written. That’s just one shelf.


The notion of
the Invisible Library as a resource is a brilliant one.  Its existence is, of course, for those of a certain bibliophilc frame of mind, utterly essential … and at the same time a gloriously futile use of precious time.  I suspect it’s the latter that has floored all attempts so far.  By its nature, the books in this library are by definition legion and the titles forever expanding.  Earlier this year A.J.Hackwith’s The Library of the Unwritten – “The first book in your new favourite series” – was published: “Every book left unfinished by its author is filed away in the Unwritten Wing, a neutral space in Hell presided over by Claire, its head librarian.”  (This too has a place on my To-be-read pile).  I say books; I don’t think anyone’s come up with an audiovisual equivalent yet, though even as I type I am contemplating a discography of fictional bands.

My favourite fictional author will always be Kurt Vonnegut‘s Kilgore Trout.  Uniquely, Trout’s ‘epic science fiction saga’ Venus on the half-shell did actually hit bookshop shelves in a ghosted volume written by fellow SF author Philip Jose farmer.

A good place to dip your toe in the phenomenon is a brief article from the Guardian back in 2008:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2008/oct/14/imaginary-books-borges-irving
It’s worth looking at the Comments too, to see how the idea flies.

But back to Those Books …

OK.  The books that Lyra – “the Lyra who wrote essays and passed examinations” – has been reading that are troubling Pantalaimon in The Secret Commonwealth are:

The Hyperchorasmians

The Hyperchorasmians, a novel by Gottfried Brande, a professor of philosophy at  Wittenburg University.  Although a novel, we’re probably talking Richard Dawkins and pals, who are often accused of deterministic, reductionist thinking as far as consciousness goes.  Last line: “It was nothing more than what it was”.  Pan complains to Lyra that as far as imagination goes, it says “it doesn’t exist“.

The sky full of stars seemed dead and cold, everything in it the result of the mechanical, indifferent interactions of molecules and particles that would continue for the rest of time whether Lyra lived or died, whether human beings were conscious or unconscious: a vast empty silent indifference, all quite meaningless.
Reason had brought her to this state. She had exalted reason over every other faculty. The result had been – was now – the deepest unhappiness she had ever felt. […]

The Constant Deceiver

Simon Talbot’s The constant deceiver  looks to be standing for the phenomena of post-structuralist, relativistic,  thought (much of it French in origin) that infected humanities departments at the tail end of the twentieth century.  Last line: “What we call reality is nothing but a gathering of flimsy similarities held together by habit”.  Pan complains to Lyra that it’s effectively saying imagination “doesn’t matter anyway“.  Another critic says: “He doesn’t believe in objective reality. It’s a fashionable attitude among undergraduates with an essay to write. A flashy writer, witty if you like that sort of thing, very popular lecturer. He’s beginning to acquire a bit of a following among the younger Scholars, mind you.” [Ouch]

Consider this, says another character:

Had reason ever created a poem, or a symphony, or a painting? If rationality can’t see things like the secret commonwealth it’s because rationality’s vision is limited. The secret commonwealth is there. We can’t see it with rationality any more than we can weigh something with a microscope: it’s the wrong sort of instrument. We need to imagine as well as measure … […]

Again, channeling the words of one of the great storytellers:

And if you want to think about them it don’t do no good making lists and classifying and analysing. You’ll just get a lot o’dead rubbish that means nothing. The way to think about the secret commonwealth is with stories. Only stories’ll do.’

PS.  Another entry for the Invisible Library … later on here’s also an ancient epic poem in the Tajik language, Jahan and Rukhsanathat seems to have some kind of prophetic quality helping to drive the action

Where’s he going with all this?

He’s not too sure himself, it seems.  In this entertaining bookshop session with Philip Goff, author of the recently published Galileo’s error he vouchsafes that daemons are “sort of external” and advises, “Read like a butterfly, write like a bee. [‘If only, says Lillabullero‘s daemon]:

 

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Not quite the sheep thing, exactly.  Newly widowed (nay, liberated) Cora Seaborne first meets, unannounced, William Ransome, married vicar of Aldwinter, in 1893, as they dramatically mud-wrestle to rescue a sheep stuck in the greasy mire on a river bank near a rural Essex village.  Surprise, surprise, when next she next meets him – the anonymous scruffy creature from the black lagoon – he turns out to be head of the family she’d previously arranged to stay with in Essex (friend of a friend).

There’s a quote among those singing its praises in the 2017 paperback edition of Sarah Perry‘s The Essex serpent (Serpent’s Tail [of course!], 2016) wondering whether, “Had Charles Dickens and Bram Stoker come together to write the great Victorian novel” it would have bettered the book we had in our hand.  There are big elements of Dickens in The Essex serpent, particularly in the Colchester passages (a disabled beggar – a real ‘character’ – minding a town house half-ruined courtesy of a recent earthquake early on, who also has a significant part to play near the end), but, as JD at Book Group sagely suggested, it would do no harm to throw George Eliot into the mix as well.

It’s pretty soft gothic as far as the Bram Stoker elements go.  There have been sightings of something, the return, worried villagers are suggesting, of a creature of local legend, documented back to the sixteenth century, maybe occasioned, let loose, by aforementioned earthquake, and the fear of those who fear the worst (many of them in the vicar’s congregation) and what it may portend, is real enough.

Against this background deep in the heart of The Essex serpent is a love story.  More than one, actually, as the story broadens out and travels back to London giving us a couple of deeply thwarted hopes too.  All good stuff, and you care about these people.  But with Cora and Will it is a relationship that must overcome barriers of a philosophical and spiritual nature We both speak of illuminating the world, but we have different sources of light, you and I” says Cora, and the challenge enervates him – never mind questions of morality.  In a neat twist – as far as the mysterious creature goes – it is vicar Will, with Marx and Darwin on his bookshelves, who is the rationalist as far as the serpent goes, appalled at the evangelist doom-criers, while Cora, paleontologist and big Mary Anning fan, is holding on to the hope of a living fossil, an Essex equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster.  She chides his faith:

‘Yes – a shame. That in the modern age a man could impoverish his intellect enough to satisfy himself with myth and legend …’ […]
‘I’ve turned my back on nothing – I have done the reverse. Do you think everything can be accounted for by equations and soil deposits? I am looking up, not down.’ There again was another of those little alterations in the air, as if the pressure had dropped, and a storm was coming: each was aware of having grown angry with the other, uncertain why.

There is plenty else going on though.  Poverty, slum clearance, street violence, philanthropy, the matter of socialism (with a guest appearance from Eleanor Marx, echoing the Pre-Raphaelites’ appearance in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s woman, not the books’ only shared vibe).  Not forgetting pioneering surgical techniques, cutting-edge stuff in the face of the medical establishment.  All these themes are convincingly brought to life by a broad array of precisely drawn characters from across the social spectrum, millionaire to beggar.  Will’s autistic son’s existence is freed-up up by Cora introducing him to the Sherlock Holmes stories, while Will’s wife has a classic Victorian wasting malady fuelling an ultimately telling (and significant plot-wise) obsession collecting things of a blue hue.

After a slow start – all atmosphere and slow action – The Essex serpent romps along nicely, with promptly delivered letters (it is 1893) helping the narrative along nicely.  Sarah Perry has a lovely turn of phrase, sometimes pithy, sometimes poetic.  Here a neat bit of scene setting with “… a thicket of hanging baskets in which daffodils and primroses jostled bad-temperedly for space. The day was fine, as if the sky regretted the slow release of winter’s grip“; there a relationship sweetly nailed, as with the vicar’s wife, the man himself and her mother: “She felt then, and felt still, a fond pity for any woman who had not had the sense to marry her Will. Her mother had lived long enough to be disappointed in her daughter’s failure to be disappointed.”  Cora explains that Martha (her paid companion) “… is a socialist. Well: sometimes I think we all must be, when it comes down to it, if we have a grain of sense – [Lillabullero smiles, silently punches the air] but for Martha it’s as much a way of life as Matins and Evensong to the good Reverend here.”

The relationship of Cora and Will [no spoilers] is beautifully nuanced.  I am floored by a sentence like, “In the end it comes down more or less to this: she does not write, because she wants to.”  Ah, the aforementioned letters, but: “It was indecent – he was at his best sealed in an envelope – that he was so unavoidably a thing of blood and bones made it impossible to ignore the strong pulse beating in her neck …” Even so, I don’t feel melodrama at all.  Incidentally, in passing flirt, Will gives Cora (and us, well new to me, anyway) an admirable birdspotting tip: “‘I’m not as good with birds as I’d like,’ he said, ‘though I can tell you the blue tit wears a highwayman’s mask, and the great tit wears the black cap of the judge that’s going to hang him.’”

Near the end Will has gone “down to the river mouth, to Leviathan’s black bones, and looked out at the estuary, willing the serpent up from the deep to swallow him down like Jonah. By the rivers of Essex I sat down and wept, he thought…”  Eventually Cora, back in London, writes back to him:

Yesterday I walked to Clerkenwell in the morning and stood by the iron gate where the Fleet flows, and listened and imagined I heard the waters of all the rivers I have known – the head of the Fleet at Hampstead where I played when I was young, and the wide Thames, and the Blackwater, with its secrets that were hardly worth keeping.

(Which, of course, they were … to the book). 

I was moved by The Essex Serpent – good for mind and soul – to the extent that I don’t feel it that inappropriate that this passage had me singing I’ve known rivers to myself, Gary Bartz’s musical setting of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ The negro speaks of rivers, which is always worth reading or hearing.  Here’s Courtney Pine’s take, from his Modern day jazz stories album, featuring Cassandra Wilson:

Vaultage – the last hurrahs!

For now, anyway.  Damn virus.  Simon Stafford has as immaculate a taste (in late ’60s & early ’70s artists’ music) as his skilled guitar playing is tasteful, and his customised treatment of the songs from that era – classic (or ought to be) – always hits the spot.  Crazy Horses’s I don’t want to talk about it, Neil Young’s Harvest moon, a spellbinding take on Dylan’s Girl of the north country, Tom Waits’ Tom Traubert’s blues (Waltzing Matilda and all).  And an arresting interpretation of Van Morrison’s Tupelo honey.

Interval: That feeling when, because you’ve never really heard the words of Tupelo honey until hearing Simon do it, you purchase The essential Van Morrison CD (I’ve got a few, but …) and one third of the way in on CD2 you discover a devotional duet with Cliff Richard; though soon we’re into Real, real gone, so a quick recovery.  And while we’re here, a compilation of performances from Ready, Steady, Go – sixth form Fridays long ago – on BBC4 the other Friday: the sheer presence of a young Van Morrison, still fronting Them, and Jerry Lee Lewis pounding the piano really stuck out; oh, and, I suppose, a reminder of why the Rolling Stones once meant something.

Paul Manning – my last in the flesh musician. So worth a photo (© Pat Nicholson)

©

And Lillabullero’s last pub pint for a while too. Cheers for now.  Be safe.

But back to the last Vaultage. Most of the usual suspects thinking this is the last for a while.  Great evening.  Massed singing of No woman, no cry among others, courtesy Paul Manning.  Heart warming set.  Farewells at the close – peacefully clashing elbows (remember, that’s what we were told).

Take care, all.

 

 

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And I’m one too many novels, and a thousand miles behind …

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s The leopard (Italy, 1958; Collins,1961 translated  by Archibald Colquhoun) is extraordinary.  It’s a sumptuous read, this novel with an interesting publishing history of rejection.  It portrays the last 23 years of Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio’s life using episodes drawn at significant intervals starting in 1860, with Garibaldi’s Italian unification army about to incorporate the island in its project, to his death in 1883, and reads like a Victorian novel, but which is suddenly distanced by only a handful of jolts:

From the ceiling, the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as a summer sky. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943. (p173)

I cringed at the start – it was a Reading Group selection – at the seeming aristocratic haughteur of: “… a touch of irritation clouded his brow as his eye fell on a tiny coffee stain which had had the presumption, since that morning, to fleck the vast white expanse of his waistcoat” but the reader is soon disabused of any wallowing in it because Fabrizio’s honourable disdain for pretty much everything is immense:

Between the pride and intellectuality of his mother and the sensuality and irresponsibility of his father, poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it.

About that sensuality – here he is sharing a carriage into town to spend time with his mistress accompanied by the local priest, who is compromised just by being in the carriage:

Now the road was crossing orange groves in flower, and the nuptial scent of the blossoms absorbed the rest as a full moon does a landscape; the smell of sweating horses, the smell of leather from the carriage upholstery, the smell of Prince and the smell of Jesuit, were all cancelled out by that Islamic perfume evoking houris and fleshly joys beyond the grave.

The flavour of the intellectuality can be seen with him briefly remembering “… a verse read by chance in a Paris bookshop … by someone whose name he had forgotten, one of those poets the French incubate and forget next week.”  Or comparing a recent event as being “… like those overtures which outlive the forgotten operas they belong to and hint in delicate veiled gaiety at all the arias which later in the opera are to be developed undeftly, and fail.

Fabrizio is a hell of a political philosopher.  His focus is on Sicily and the Sicilians, but it might as well be the whole wide world. Oh, and his coat of arms is a leopard, did I not mention that?:

“All this shouldn’t last; but it will always; the human ‘always’ of course, a century, two centuries … and after that it will be different, but worse. We were the Leopards and Lions; those who’ll take our place will be little jackals, hyenas; and the whole lot of us, Leopards, jackals and sheep, we’ll all go on thinking ourselves the salt of the earth.”

His death scene, his conclusion on his lifetime experiences is, for me – and I don’t think I’m going over the top here – one of the great passages.  Which – no easy rides here – you will have to read for yourselves.  I hope I’ve given a taste of why I think it’s worth your time.

Happiness for beginners

And now for something completely different.  From a genre I’ve not spent much time with, Carole MatthewsHappiness for beginners (Sphere, 2019) delivers what its author admits to in her afterword – “the kind of warm-hearted fiction that I like to write”.  The basic plot – shrinking violet finds love with reformed TV star, who turns down a big chance – is corny as hell (“Is this what they write about in romance novels, this frisson, this electricity that seems to be tingling in my veins? I don’t know“), but none the less, entertaining for that.  Others too, more surprisingly, emerge from under shells too, which is nice.

The McGuffin is Hope Farm, a charity, a really good thing, that has been forced to look for a new home:

We’re not in the business of “fixing” broken kids, Mr Dacre. We help them to find out who they are, to build their confidence, to teach them how to exist with their various conditions and get along with others. Sometimes those who can’t talk to other humans do very well with animals. We have students here with Asperger’s Syndrome, autism, Chaotic Attachment, depression, all manner of mental health issues. Some self-harm, some try to harm others.

Never mind the teenagers and young adults, the animals are not without their problems.  Hope Farm has become a last chance saloon for some of them too, so we have fun with the likes of  Anthony the Anti-Social Sheep, and the alpacas: “Tina Turner, Rod Stewart; Johnny Rotten is our most troubled alpaca – our post-punk bad boy“.  The two ex-Police horses have been renamed Sweeney and Carter, while Ringo, the donkey who is allergic to his own fringe, ends up getting a haircut from a celebrity hairdresser.  “Challenged chickens” provide eggs, not least ” our survivor, Gloria Gaynor, who’s been attacked three times by the fox and yet is still here to tell the tale.”

Molly Baker, 38, who runs Hope Farm, living in a tatty old caravan there, is our chatty, dedicated, endearing narrator – “I don’t know how people get off on shopping. I’d rather clean out a pigsty any day of the week; she swears a bit too.  Romantic male lead is recently widowed Shelby Dacre,  who plays a farmer in a successful tv soap, and happens to be allergic to animals.  It’s all good fun.

Hope Farm is based on Animal Antiks, an enterprise that friends of Lillabullero are involved with.  You can read about them here: www.animalantiks.com.  I assuage my Amazon conscience by nominating them as the recipient of the pennies accrued on the Amazon Smile charity link.  They too survived a crisis of finding a new location.  The Antipoet campaigned about it – “With the alpacas we stand tall”.  You can never have too much Antipoet:

The luckiest man alive

Speaking of poets. the big question about John Cooper Clarke‘s The luckiest man alive (Picador, 2019) is, after a 36 year gap (his Ten years in a open necked shirt) … has he still got it?  Yup.  There are pages here not half as good as the best, but it’s worth.

The title poem‘s opening lines – “Nothing matters and what if it did / There’s more than one way to make a quid” – sound (impossible not to say them with that Salford twang of his) as good as Louis MacNeice or Auden in incantatory mode.  Twas ever thus.

Third verse of Attack of the 50ft woman:

She’s a radioactive predatory flirt
With a figure made to disconcert
Mess with her and you’re gonna get hurt
Lapsed Catholics reconvert
Attack of 50ft woman

Cheer yourself up with 14 verses of Bed blocker blues: “Things are gonna get worse, nurse / Things are gonna get rotten“.  Somewhere further on in: “A menace in the box I was good in the air / Now I can’t get up from an easy chair / The doctor told me oh yeah / Things are gonna get worse“.  Relentlessly rhyming and finishing with a kicker of a last one.  Warm yourself with the wit of the pretty much perfectly formed 11 4-line verses of I’ve fallen in love with my wife, a line that keeps charmingly recurring.

There is some serious stuff – Bipolar inmate diary, a prison protest, Beasley Boulevard (“The Mall, the Maul, whatever you want to call it“), the scornful update of urban renewal-ed Beasley Street – never mind The man who didn’t love Elvis (“Condemned to miss the point / Time and time plus time again“), which leads nicely to his Desert Island Discs, an absolute radio treat; there’s not many Desert Island Discs make you laugh out loud.  How can you resist?: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000701x 

The year of the monkey

Hey, Patti is one of us!  September of the year in question she is briefly in Seattle, about to make a speech testifying the importance of public libraries:

Library memories cross-wired with images of my own books, hundreds of books, lying on the bed, lining the right side of the staircase, stacked on the card table in the kitchen and higher stacks on the floor, against the wall.

The year of the monkey (Bloomsbury, 2019) is Patti Smith‘s memoir-cum-dreamscape of her 2016, a year in which two close and culturally accomplished friends – Sandy Pearlman (Don’t fear the reaper) and polymath Sam Shepherd – were dying and died, and there was a presidential election.  It starts on New Year’s Day with her on her own in the Dream Inn, a motel in Santa Cruz, after a NYE gig in San Francisco.  Soon she is conversing with the sign, which is the first of her Polaroid photos (which, in general, frankly, leave me puzzled) that grace the text.

She’s in a contemplative mood, quoting Marcus Aurelius, she’s 70 this year:

 Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual.

She reminisces about Allen Ginsberg, there’s a description of how it felt seeing Chilean writer Roberto Bolano’s games cupboard; his novel 2666 is referenced (she joins in a discussion with someone called Ernest about it; he reappears, somewhat dramatically, a couple of times, and I’m still not sure if he’s a real person or not).  She travels a lot, almost nomadically, and she can make you feel an intellectual pygmy – I have that 2666 898 page novel, bought pristine and obviously unread in a charity bookshop, still unread – but I really like being in her company.  After visiting a Chinese restaurant:

Back in my room I opened the cookie and unwound the fortune. You will step on the soul of many countries. I’ll be careful, I said, under my breath, but upon second glance I realised it actually said soil.

The Report

Jessica Francis Kane‘s The report (Portobello, 2011) is what used to be called a faction.  173 men, women and children died in the crush trying to go down into into Bethnal Green tube station, which was being used as the local bomb shelter.  As she puts it in her afterword:

A crush did happen on the evening of 3 March 1943; news of it was kept secret for days; and a private investigation was ultimately led by a magistrate named Laurence Dunne. The government suppressed his report until after the war. The rest of the story, as I’ve told it in this book, is fiction.

This was news to me, but there has been a lot coming out about London in the Second World War that has been comfortably forgotten about for a long while.  She’s good on the disaster and the phenomenon of crowds – there was nothing unusual about that day, the shelter had had no problems before – and on the event’s aftermath, the rumours that spread, the search for someone to blame and so on.  It’s the fiction that is less satisfactory, the characters and their links, and in particular the narrative construct of a relative putting together a television documentary about it all in 1973 – on which channel would that be?

Mind, it was always going to be difficult for me to come back from – it was a Book Group selection – an early bit of scene-setting like: “A football match in the Museum Gardens had drawn a large crowd, and when the young borough engineer won the game with an impossible header, people heard the cheer in Stepney.” [My italics; the author is American].

I am, I am, I am

Novelist Maggie O’Farrell‘s I am, I am, I am: seventeen brushes with death (Headline, 2017) is a sort of memoir.  Its seventeen episodes cover a period from 1977 to 2016 and range over near misses, accidents, violent encounters and various serious medical emergencies happening to her and her daughters.  They are not presented chronologically, which for me became a problem.

This was another Book Group selection which I came to knowing nothing of beforehand.  The actual heart of the book is the final two chapters; now I know writing must involve manipulating the reader’s sensibilities, but somehow, even though those two chapters leant a resonance to what had come before, I felt I was being manipulated.  I’ve liked the novels of hers I’ve read; maybe I was expecting something a bit more philosophical.

The skipping about chronologically annoyed me, I was impressed (if that’s the word) at her memory for small details of historical events, and there was an element of superfluous repetition that crept into certain descriptions (a collection of magazine articles?).   I’m afraid it didn’t think it really cohered as a whole.

Not for me to examine her (maybe brave?) life choices too closely, but when, in Causes unknown (2003) she writes, “We were on a long, deserted stretch of French road,” I’m afraid my reaction was: Of course you were.  Then there’s the problem with tea, of which she says, I have never been able to stomach it:

I am the sole tea-abstainer in my family. I think they regard this as a baffling perversion. To me, tea tastes like dried lawn clippings, diluted leaf mould, watered-down compost mixed with a dash of bovine bodily fluid.

How does she know?

Night Boat to Tangier

When we move by water, our hearts are moved. We are complicated fucking machines. Now the hours melt one into the other at the port of Algeciras. For the fading Irish gangsters the long wait continues –

Kevin Barry‘s Night boat to Tangier (Canongate, 2019) is nothing if not atmospheric.  The two men, “mildly natty, mildly decrepit“, have had a tip they might catch their daughter Dilly, a nomad crustie there, three years since “she lit out for the territories“.  (Do they meet up? – I’m not telling).

Once they had been “fabled people … They were in a moment of dangerous splendour. The men were lizardly, reptilian. They wore excellent fucking shoes”.  That they were one night in 2000, in The Judas Iscariot, an all-night drinking club in Cork, the night changed everything between them.

Old style gangsters – drug runners – not good men, but before people trafficking became the moneymaker:

Ah, listen. We’re the Antique Roadshow. The little fuckers growing it in their own bedrooms. Under lights? The dope they’re growing in the West of Ireland now you wouldn’t get it in the Rif Mountains.

October 2018 it is, then.  Time to kill, just hanging around:

They talk of aging and death. They talk of those they have crossed and those they have helped, of their first loves and lost loves, of their enemies and friends. They talk of the old days in Cork, and in Barcelona, and in London, and in Malaga, and in the ghosted city of Cadiz. They talk of the feelings of those places. They talk about being here, once again, on the coast of Barbary, as though on a magnet’s drag.

Maurice Hearne is 51, Charlie Redmond thereabouts.  From the village of Berehaven on Ireland’s west coast.  They talk and there are vivid flashbacks, from 1994 when their careers began, to now, and taking in more places than that.  Slow dramatic reveal is the game – Mo’s wife Cynthia plays a significant part – and it’s a heartbreaker; they have not been good men but you don’t half feel for them.

The layout of the 214 pages is generous with the spaces in between, even of single lines of dialogue and there are no speech marks employed.  Paragraphs do not go on for long.  Stylistically it works.  Sharp, poetic, beautifully observed, I loved it.  Funny too:

And a tongue on her, Cynthia. When I came back without an eye on me? From Tangier? She took one look, after all I’d suffered, and she said who the fuck do you think you are, Thom Yorke?
Never heard of him. Or hang about … He wasn’t a lame boy from Summerhill?
He’s the lad out of Radiohead, Charlie.
Never liked them. Whining bastards. And the amount of money the cunts are making? They should have the ukuleles out.

The hearing trumpet

Leonora Carrington‘s The hearing trumpet is a weird one in the best sense of the word.  Probably written, in French, in 1950, but not published until 1974 in france, and translated into English in 1974, the edition I read – Penguin, 2016  – has a splendid intro from Ali Smith scintillatingly mapping out this extraordinary woman’s Bio, from being a deb presented at the English court in 1936 (she read a book), the lover of Max Ernst and surrealist artist of note in her own right, before moving to and thriving in Mexico.  Many of the images and symbols that are invoked in The hearing trumpet regularly appear in her paintings, which are easy to find on the web.  It also feels quite modern.

Marian Leatherbury is 92-years old and deaf when her BF, Carmella, gives her a hearing trumpet.  The first thing she hears is her family scheming to put her in a home.  They move her into a quirky but strict quasi-religious community; Ali Smith suggests it may be Gurdjeffian (ah, Gurdjieff, there’s a name I haven’t heard for a while; his books always used to get stolen from the library).  In the communal dining room there is a portrait of a “leering abbess”, whose story is delivered as a book within a book.  After a seeming murder she suspects a conspiracy and she and Carmella plot a revolution:

“It is impossible to understand how millions and millions of people all obey a sickly collection of gentlemen that call themselves ‘Government!’ […] It is a form of planetary hypnosis, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”
“It has been going on for years,” I said. “And it only occurred to relatively few to disobey and make what they call revolutions. If they won their revolutions, which they occasionally did, they made more governments, sometimes more cruel and stupid than the last.”

After a hunger strike there is a prospect of “An orgy of sardines and port wine“.  A wolf pack is involved – by the way, ‘wolvery’ is the language of wolves – which was “howling outside but I could tell that they had changed their chorus, and through a slight tingling on my scalp! I detected a new sound quite near and strangely reminiscent of mince pies.”  Believe me I’m not really giving anything away when I quote from the story’s end:

This is how the Goddess reclaimed her Holy Cup with an army of bees, wolves, six old women, a Chinaman, a poet, an atom-driven ark, and a werewoman. The strangest army, perhaps, ever seen on this planet. […]
After I die Anubeth’s werecubs will continue the document, till the planet is peopled with cats, werewolves, bees and goats. We all fervently hope that this will be an improvement on humanity, which deliberately renounced the Pneuma of the Goddess.

Oh, and there’s a postman called Taliesen.  Here’s a photo of Leonora, the work of Lee Miller, that has always been a favourite of mine before I knew anything about her. Goodnight.

 

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Bit of a book logjam here at Lillabullero (which is not being helped by this preface).  Please feel free to skip the preamble and go straight to the books.

Backstory:  I’d been keeping a reading diary for myself, literally scribbling away in notebooks (sometimes even with a fountain pen) since at least 1987 (annoyingly I can’t put my hands on the original one, though it wasn’t a big volume) so when I finally girded my loins to go online (for motivation see below) I just thought wotthehell Archie, if you’re going to wordprocess it you might as well blog it and que sera if nobody reads it.  And so I did blog it, and lo and behold, a handful of people visited, and again, internet early days and authors would ego surf and … respond, which was good for my ego, don’t you know! I even got invited to participate in a virtual book launch.  But basically, I don’t want to break the chain.

A bit more Backstory: back in c2002, in the days before Ray Davies was universally acknowledged as a ‘national treasure’ (back in the days before someone being ‘a national treasure’ was not a media cliche), I felt I wanted to give something back to the international Kinks fan community. I’d been contributing to a lively web digest and had subsequently made friends at what turned out to be the annual U.K. Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention. Hence: I wonder where they all are now: an annotated index of people named or alluded to in the songs of the Kinks, of which there are many. The title was a quote from Where are they now? a song that listed a number of ‘swinging Londoners’ and of writers dubbed ‘Angry Young Men’, from 1973’s under-rated Preservation Act 1 album. 

The webs we weave (c) DRQ: here purely to break up the text.

That was at a time when Alta Vista was the premier search engine in town – Google’s omniscience was a few years away – and Wikipedia was in its infancy, when it wasn’t as easy to pin down, say, ‘Old Mother Riley’, so it was hopefully of some service, especially to confused overseas fans, of whom there more than you might have thought and growing in number. I also used it as a vehicle to indulge myself as opportunities occurred for intrusions of reminiscence, personal opinion, sarcasm, pretention and similar all-round being-a-clever-bastard intrusions (see Winston Churchill, for example). The ever growing sister page The Kinks in Literature, chronicling mentions of the band or songs in (mostly crime) novels, kept it company. [To tell the truth, I’ve been a bit Kinked-out for a while now – I’ve known and evangelised that Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur were special for well over four decades, and I have a kind of dread at revisiting the ’80s albums  – but now’s not the time.]

For what it’s worth, the most visited pages here are a more or less systematic presentation of (as it stands) Peter Robinson’s 26-strong series of crime novels featuring detective Alan Banks, and a discussion, with numerous comments, examining an unresolved enigma (if that’s what you want to call it) concerning a child with a birthmark the shape of Africa in Kate Atkinson’s splendid Started early, took my dog – one of her Jackson Brodie novels – that it seems is near the top on Google when people consult there, trying to puzzle it out.  Oh and a couple of pictures that weren’t mine in the first place, most notably that ‘We Win’ front page headline from the opening credits to Cheers.

But things have slipped here on the bookblogging front. The delights of grandparentry, a couple of operations in the household, the draw of Channel4 quality morning television programming (Frasier even though one has the dvd box set), laxity, losing sight of the uses of brevity, and good old procrastination and even a bit of autumnal gardening have all taken their toll. Enough! On with the show! There now follows a whistle stop of months and months of reading.

Rivers of London: 2

Did Ben Aaronivitch‘s Moon over Soho (Gollancz, 2011) live up to the wit, excitement, erudition, sardonicism and compassion of its predecessor, the series-founding The rivers of London?  You bet!

Herein the Metropolitan Police’s trainee wizard (“I was still behind on my Latin vocab“), investigates murders involving Jazz vampires, a character called Vagina Dentata (the result of a human/animal hybrid experiment), and “ethically challenged magical practitioners” (previously known a ‘black’.  Like its forerunner, it gets pretty gruesome (if not without laughs in the grue), there’s a lot of jazz (We’re the jazz police), and some interesting London local history.  Oh, and the established gods and sprites of the river.

It is joyfully all over the place, while at the same time being tightly plotted à la police procedural.  Nightingale is our hero’s boss, last fully qualified survivor in his particular trade:

‘There are no short cuts in wizardry, Peter. If there were everyone would be doing it.’  Probably on Britain’s Got talent, I thought, but you don’t say these things to Nightingale because he doesn’t have a sense of humour about the art, and only used the telly for watching rugby.

Vinyl Detective: 4

Did Andrew Cartmel‘s Flip back (Titan, 2019) live up to the fun, drive and engagement of its three predecessors.  Not so much, though I daresay newcomers to the series might still find much to be entertained by here.  Convoluted they have all been for sure, but this one felt like it.  Faked website and road signage concerning tidal causeway times just for the benefit of our questing quartet.

Here the McGuffin is a long retired folk-rock band called Black Dog, who infamously literally burnt a million dollars (or did they?) on a Scottish island just before breaking up.  Yup, the old K Foundation/KLF stunt of 1994, with a touch of subsequent Zep-ish black magic practition thrown in.  For me the weakness of Flip back springs from the origins of the quest – the Vinyl Detective’s stoner honcho’s wanting it to help get a Black Dog superfan into bed – for the original super-rare with a flip-back cover 3rd album (quickly withdrawn and subsequently re-recorded without the main man).

There’s a worrying lack of character development on the soap opera front – with resort to previously met metal guitarist Erik Makeloud’s to boot – and the one-liners don’t have quite the same fizz (I didn’t make any notes); the domestic cats become a cosy annoyance, frankly.  Doesn’t mean I won’t read the next one, though.

Educated

How about this for an opening paragraph of a novel?:

The summer I sang lead for Annie it was 1999.  My father was in serious preparedness mode. Not since I was five, and the Weavers were under siege, had he been so certain that the Days of Abomination were upon us.

Except it’s Chapter 9 and Tara Westover‘s Educated (Hutchinson, 2018) is no novel, but an account for real of her escape from a harrowing existence as part of an extreme survivalist Mormon family cult in rural Idaho, USA (she’d never heard of Dr Martin Luther King Jr until late teens), to a PhD in Intellectual History in Cambridge, UK, by 2014.  That Annie was the start of a painful journey, a struggle with both internal and external pressures.

It’s an extraordinary story, an exhilarating tale of liberation from a wild and crazy mindset and a seriously rigid dysfunctional family unit (which actually manages to function very well eventually in the natural healing business), and a celebration of the difference that one individual’s intervention can have on another’s existence.  It is also a tale in which she worries about the validity of memory, wrestling with what she saw with conflicting accounts and hearsay of crucial family events.

At Cambridge she’s suffering from imposter syndrome until her intake are taken up on a college roof by their professor:

”… here you stand, upright, hands in your pockets.” He gestured towards the other students. “See how they hunch? How they cling to the wall.” […]
I raised my hand and gripped the wall.
“You don’t need to do that,” he said. “It’s not a criticism.”
He paused, as if unsure he should say more. “Everyone has undergone a change,” he said. “The other students were relaxed until we came to this height. Now they are uncomfortable, on edge.  You seem to have made the opposite journey. This is the first time I’ve seen you at home in yourself. It’s in the way you move: it’s as if you’ve been on this roof all your life.”
A gust of wind swept over the parapet and Dr Kerry teetered, clutching the wall. I stepped up onto the ridge so he could flatten himself against the buttress. He stared at me, waiting for an explanation.
“I’ve roofed my share of hay sheds,” I said finally […] “I can stand in this wind, because I’m not trying to stand in it,” I said.

Warlight

And speaking of great opening lines:

In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.

Michael Ondaatje‘s haunting Warlight (Cape, 2018) does not disappoint.  Nathaniel (‘Stitch’ is 14, sister Rachel (‘The Wren’) 16 when they are left in the charge of ‘the Moth’ and ‘the Darter’.  Various adventures ensue for each of them, his involving night missions in the bombsites and Thames backwaters behind London Docks (real Iain Sinclair territory), hers in theatreland, and their kidnapping.

He’s 18 when his mother dies in what turn out to be suspicious circumstances; 11 years later he moves back to the Suffolk village where that happened.  In the meantime he has been employed working with wartime archives, in which he slowly discovers exactly what his mother had doing in the war years and their immediate aftermath, and how that linked with his experiences back then (not least his first passionate affair).

There are many sublime passages – after all, Ondaatje first published as a poet – and reading Warlight it often felt like I was watching a peak-Stephen Poliakoff tv epic, as so much is revealed.  It’s been emotional.

Of late something of a sub-genre has been developing – in both fiction and non-fiction – taking as its subject the realisation of what a parent or grand-parent did in the war, especially if they were spies.  Speaking of which …

The girl from Station X

The title of Elisa Segrave‘s The girl from Station X: my mother’s unknown life (Aurum Press, 2013) is a classic exercise of band-wagon jumping, given only 44 pages out of the 355 of narrative are concerned with Anne Hamilton-Grace’s time at Bletchley Park (Enigma machine and all that) from initial interview to the leaving thereof.

For most of her adult life Elisa had resented her mother: “… how could I respect someone who, much of the time that I knew her, was a self-pitying escapist alcoholic?”  It was only after dementia hit hard and she found her mother’s diaries from 1930 through 1952 that she could find room for sympathy for of a woman whose crises had so intruded on her life.

As a book The girl from Station X is a bit chronologically all over the place and not especially well presented, but the actual diaries have some real sociological value as a picture of its times, both of a privileged existence (links with royalty even) and how such privilege – foreign travel taken for granted back then et al – can be the source of unhappiness and blight, and how the power then of the stigma of lesbianism can stunt a life and a family.  The only time Anne’s life takes on substance and engagement is in the war, when she has something important to do (and even then she’s a neurotic drama queen who is hard to like).  It’s a sad tale of dysfunctional relationships:

My mother had a lovely garden, with ancient walls, an old moat and two little towers, yew hedges, lavender, white and red roses, peonies and delphiniums. It [Knowle, a country house in Kent] was even used in a children’s TV film, Tom’s Midnight Garden, and I’m sure many envied it. But inside the house, the piss-stained carpets and the endless supply of alcohol were indications of my mother’s despair.

Station Eleven

Year Zero in Emily St John Mandel‘s Station Eleven (Picador, 2014) is when a virus that kills in 48 hours wipes out 99% of the world’s population.  As post-apocalyptical novels go – nothing works anymore, its just self-sufficiency or banditry – there are a couple more jokes than you’ll get from a Margaret Atwood, but it’s still pretty grim.  The virus only hits humans, though, so the wild flowers are glorious, while dangerous beasts can be a problem.

Station Eleven, which I liked  a lot, has two main linked narrative strands, which it skips about between.  It starts and ends in Year Zero with Arthur, a successful actor, who is playing the lead in King Lear, a long-held ambition, and we get a lot of his back story and that of his friends and wives, a decent novel in itself.

Just before disaster strikes he gives a child actor in the cast (Kirsten, 8-years old) two copies of an unfinished graphic novel that his first wife had drawn and written featuring a future community, called Station Eleven.  She survives, and by Year Twenty she is part of The Traveling Symphony, a touring caravan troupe of actors and musicians with a mission, moving from one isolated surviving community to another in the Great Lakes region of North America, keeping the flame of Shakespeare and classical music alive.

I particularly liked the way the author works in various popular culture references, even if Don’t stop believin’ is ‘secretly’ Arthur’s favourite song:

“All I’m saying,” Dieter said … is that quote on the lead caravan would be way more profound if we hadn’t lifted it from Star Trek.” He was talking near Kirsten and August.
Survival is insufficient. Kirsten had had those words tattooed on her left forearm at the age of fifteen and had been arguing with Dieter about it ever since.

Miranda, the graphic novelist, enthuses about Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes great newspaper strip – one of my favourites – highlighting Calvin’s Spaceman Spiff alter ego. Try: https://www.gocomics.com/calvinandhobbes/2017/10/15 for a bit of Spiff and then keep hitting the random button to get an addictive taste for the wider Calvin and Hobbes.

More catching up to follow.

 

 

 

 

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Comfortable Win

Given the hardships and rigours of the voyage, perhaps enchantment is not the right word to describe how Sally Magnusson‘s The Sealwoman’s gift (Two Roads, 2018) took me over, but that’s how it felt from the beginning.  Nor was I alone in this at the March meeting.  Who’d have thought it, we all said, about ‘The Turkish Abductions’, as they are known in Iceland.  In 1627 (1627!) Barbary corsairs, out of Ottoman North Africa, raid Iceland and take 400 inhabitants (250 from one small island) and ship them to Algiers to sell into slavery, or held for ransom.  There is a contemporary text, but as Asta says toward the end:

For those who want to know what it is for human beings to be stolen and traded and lose their children, there is always Olafur’s book, which has been much copied and passed around. By now others may have written their own accounts of captivity. Men, of course. They will all be men. Does it matter that nobody will know how it was to be a woman?

A couple in the reading group had reservations, thought it was cheating a bit, to smuggle a feminist voice into the narrative (it is quite subtly done), but they still praised it highly; for me that was the cherry on the cake, added sparkle. 

We get to see the aforesaid chronicler, a Lutheran minister, not a bad bloke, being set up with a younger wife, Asta, who is the bright main narrative voice: Margret sniffs. ‘I soon had you in shape though, didn’t I? You would have been no use to Olafur if you hadn’t known how to soften a cod’s head in whey“; she is quite taken that he’s a bookman, though there are differences in outlook:

There are no trolls in the Bible. Grotesque shapes in the lava are the way the Almighty once instructed a volcano to behave and not frozen giantesses awaiting the sun’s caresses.

 It’s not all Asta, either; here’s a pirate, outlining their strategy:  

So, fly a Danish flag, sail on past with confidence, land the boats somewhere the locals would never think of and storm the harbour from inland. Fucking brilliant plan, even if it did have its perils. He thought his last moments had come trying to land on the promontory. Never seen surf like it.

Sally Magnusson is not mucking about; this is a slave ship.  Asta and Olifur already have two children, who are taken with them; she gives birth to a third on the voyage.  Once in Muslim Algiers he gets to go back to negotiate a ransom for their release, while she gets taken into a harem, where she keeps the interesting Sultan at bay for a considerable time by giving him the equivalent of A thousand and one nights, drawing from her extensive knowledge of Icelandic myths and sagas; indeed, storytelling is at play throughout the book.  Her elder kids go native (he even becomes a corsair); the sultan is beguiled, and she gets drawn in by the sensual delights of Algiers (warmth, colour, spice), gets to appreciate there are other ways of life, and pleasurably succumbs. 

Finally the prospect of the ransom getting paid; she has a decision to make; old duty wins after an inner struggle.  Holding station on the way back in Amsterdam’s no great shakes either.  Back in Iceland she hates it and him (colourless, cold, monotonous food, a joyless old man).  There is a reconciliation brought about by the gift of the Sealwoman.  Though it’s not as straightforward as it seems if you think about it (she does), it works well enough.

The Sealwoman’s gift is a beautifully told historical novel that sings.  The prose flows, is vivid, realistic, emotional and enchanting; it is delivered with great insight, has great character development (hey, Book Group-land!) and no little wit.  I loved reading it.  Hell, it even has a fart joke:

Asta is horrified to feel a trickle of laughter at her throat. All her life she has struggled with the impulse to laugh at the wrong time. Olafur has never forgiven her for giggling uncontrollably the day he roared from the pulpit, ‘Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind’, just as a large farmer at the front shifted his buttock and blasted the congregation. The worst of it was that Olafur heard her and had to swallow twice himself. He said afterwards that he had never been so mortified and refused to speak to her for the rest of the day.

Nil-Nil draw

I took against Jamil Ahmad‘s The wandering falcon (2011), April’s Book Group book, from the clumsy opening words: “In the tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, is a military outpost manned by about two score soldiers.”  Of course the hills are broken – they’re crumbling and weather-beaten;  unless broken means more, and if so, what?  And there are more graceful words available than that ‘about’?

I’m probably being unfair.  This collection of connected short stories, covering events in the 1950s through to the 1970s, was written in the latter decade and published when the author, a government official, was 79.  It certainly gives you a feel for the bleak terrain, challenging climate and the harsh life of the seasonally migrating tribes of the region have traditionally worked the area.  But times are changing, not least this modern notion of borders, and The wandering Falcon examines these social changes:

They walked silently for a while, thinking about the effect the new policy would have on them and their people. There was no way for them to obtain travel documents for thousands of their tribesmen; they had no birth certificates, no identity papers or health documents. They could not document their animals. The new system would certainly mean the death of a centuries-old way of life.

Trouble is, it’s not easy to look upon these massive changes overtaking a cruelly patriarchal way of life as any great loss.  Nor, thankfully, is Jamil Ahmad a sentimental chronicler of its demise:

Despite their differences, the two [feuding] tribes share more than merely their common heritage of poverty and misery. Nature has bred in both an unusual abundance of anger, enormous resilience, and a total refusal to accept their fate. […] To both tribes, survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer. And then, both are totally absorbed in themselves. They have no doubt in their minds that they occupy centre stage, while the rest of the world acts out minor roles or watches them as spectators – as befits inferior species.

The stories are linked by the title character, Tor Baz, who we first see as a very young boy.  Abandoned after a wretched sequence of events, he manages somehow to fend for himself for the duration.  He’s not exactly Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (now that would be interesting, a native-written re-write), but he makes at least a fleeting appearance in each of the nine stories except the penultimate and crucial The betrothal of Shah Zarina, the story of a woman’s escape from a brutal marriage to a bear-tamer, only to end up in a slave market.  Where (spoiler alert) in the nicely ambiguous final chapter, she catches Tor Baz’s eye and he, operating in trickster mode, buys her for cheap, thinking “I could settle down with this one“.  I’ll admit it’s stayed with me longer than I thought it might; as a group we acknowledged its strengths but on the whole were lukewarm.

A mauling

A less than well attended May meeting, with little enthusiasm for Public library and other stories (Hamish Hamilton, 2015) and some ire.  Except from one of us. Which was me.  Who loved it.  And was reading it for the third time.

Seems Ali Smith is Marmite.  She’s all over the place, they complained, there’s no obvious structure.  That’s why I like her so much; she’ll just, for want of a better description, get a notion and  ‘go off on one’; or seems to – there could well be art in this.  As well as witty nods and literary winks aplenty.  True, there isn’t much to specifically link the 12 actual short stories with the prompted passages from various writers singing the praises of a beleaguered public library service – it was fair, I guess, to expect a library setting to some of the fiction – but books and a fascination with words figure strongly in these absorbing (for some!) tales of personal renaissance, scholarship in the broadest sense (Dusty Springfield!), and just making it through.

I’ve written about this book before (https://quavid.wordpress.com/2016/03/18/book-affected-homes/ ) but I’ll give a taste from Say I won’t be there, a wife and husband breakfast dialogue and email exchange that starts off “I had a dream, I say.” The Today programme is on BBC Radio4.  He’s thinking about work.  It’s a recurring dream: “I’m, like, a character in a 1960s novel. / Which 1960s novel? you say.  / Not a real actual novel, I say.”  He queries further, prompting.  “Don’t start trying to turn my dream into a cheap graphic-design version of the 1960s, I say.”  They briefly reminisce (or he does) about a holiday car journey with A hard day’s night on the car stereo.  Conversation about Dusty Springfield follows inter alia.  Is he in the dream? 

She goes off to work, she thinks back to when she used to write down her dreams in a book they bought in Habitat.  Dusty email exchanges lead to her buying and listening to a Springfields ‘best of’ double CD, surprised at how much she recognises.  Day’s end and conversation in bed, starting with “I’ll write a book instead, you say.  I’ll call it The Dream: Grime and Transcendence in the 1960s Novel.  / Not a very catchy title I say.” Then we get that night’s dream in which a family talks about Busty Springboard (as my partner, not Ali Smith, says they used to call her), and which is like a 1960s novel.  Nineteen brilliant pages; but I can see it’s not for everyone.

Okay.  And why not?

My title, by the way, was a shameless lift from J.G.Ballard’s splendid short story The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy considered as a downhill motor race, itself inspired by Alfred Jarry’s The Crucifixion considered as an uphill bicycle race.  I don’t really do it justice.

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