For the Glory of Jellyfish

Tuesday 12th July, 11.13am
Hassocks Station

I needed to get out. While it was ultimately my decision to come back south to my flat and cut myself off once again – and I stand by that decision – it’s all too easy to go stir crazy in here on my own. I was angling on getting out and seeing friends for a couple of days, but as my plans fell apart, I’ve had to take the reins myself. So I decided to strike out for the coast. Brighton always makes for good writing, that perfectly bizarre city.

It’s clearly a school trip day today. The train south from Three Bridges was absolutely rammed with saaf Landan kids in high-vis jackets, their beleaguered teachers sitting close at hand, identifiable for the throbbing veins in their temples if not by their lanyards. Standing room only. It’s kind of noisy in the gangway, so I pop my headphones on. The Spinners’ Rubberband Man cancels out some of the angrier verses the kids are throwing around from their phones. I don’t understand the unbridled rage in that kind of music, much less its magnetic appeal to kids. Give me the laidback fun of the seventies any day.


12.40pm
Brighton Palace Pier

Somehow it took me all of an hour to get from the station to the pier. Time slips through my fingers in a bookshop. It’s as though Waterstones operates in its own dimension. That could well be because I’ve become a lot more tactical when it comes to book-buying, taking the time to really get a flavour for a book before deciding to add it to my collection. As a general rule, any and all books on Spain (pre-20th century) go straight into the basket, but I’ve genuinely reached the stage now where if I don’t have it, it’s not worth having. There’s still a wealth of material out there in Spain in Spanish, but with Spain’s ludicrous stance on FBP, shopping for books over there is simply not economically viable. At the moment I’m trying to pick up my European reading challenge where I left off a few years ago, so I sought out a Ukrainian book to add to the collection today. I thought I was onto a winner with Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman – the forefather of Fiddler on the Roof – only it turns out, predictably, my mother already bought the book years ago. Still, no matter. That’s one more book I can feel better about giving away someday.


1.27pm
Brighton SeaLife Centre

Yes, I visited the aquarium. Don’t judge! When I was a kid I used to love going to aquariums – or the more ecologically-sound sealife centres, as they are so often called these days. Nausicaa across the Channel in Boulogne was a personal favourite, but Hastings’ SeaLife Centre came a very close second.

It was pretty much deserted. A large primary school group came in after me, but they never made it any further than the cafe housed in the original Victorian aquarium. I felt like a kid again and challenged myself to name the fish whose names I’d furiously memorised more than twenty years ago. For some crazy reason it’s all still there. From loach, tench and trout (easy mode), to snakelocks anemones, garden eels and corkwing, rainbow and cuckoo wrasse (standard) and on to pacu, Bloody Henrys and discus fish (hard mode). It’s a safe bet that the reason I had such a hard time learning anything in science class was because that part of my brain was stuffed full of animal trivia. If only biology had been about animals and not plant cell structure…! Who knows, I might have gone on to study it. As it is, I was bored stiff and let it go as soon as I could.

I stood and watched the turtles for quite a while. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a live sea turtle before. My god, they’re huge. Nature found a perfect recipe over 100 million years ago and decided ‘yep, that doesn’t need any more work’. Like sharks, turtles have been around for millions of years. Watch a turtle fly through the water and you’re reminded of how pathetically short our time on this planet has been by comparison. Only, these turtles looked a little stereotypic. One bit the other on one pass. Creatures can develop odd behaviours when they’re cooped up in small quarters. Maybe that’s a window into what’s happened to me in my flat this summer!

On to the jellies. I could have come here for the jellyfish alone. They’re absolutely mesmerising to watch in flight, pulsing slowly through the water, their hair-like tentacles trailing behind them. Another perfect life form that has seen millions of years of evolution come and go. Almost all sci-fi flicks imagine aliens from other planets as bipedal if not all-but human in appearance (Doctor Who and Star Wars are the prime examples), but if I were a betting man, I’d stake a fair amount on extra-terrestrials looking more like jellyfish than man. Isn’t it rather selfish of us to assume that ours is the perfect life form when turtles, sharks and jellyfish – hell, even cockroaches – have outlived us by millions of years? And on that note, I’d better clear out of here before I sell out mankind to the invading jellies faster than Kent Brockman.


2.58pm
Artists’ Beach

After nearly betraying humanity over a jellyfish and admiring the beautiful world beneath the waves for an hour, I promptly went outside, climbed the steps up to the palace pier and ate a battered fish with chips and vinegar. The irony was fortunately lost on the hoarse chippie vendor, who barely got the order numbers out in a grating voice. A group of girls next to me got their orders in after me, but somehow got their orders out first. £8.20 for fishcakes and chips seemed a bit steep compared to the £5.40 deal just 200 metres from the pier, but it was good quality, and since I barely managed to finish it, I didn’t have to wash it down with a tot of buyer’s remorse.

Brighton was packed with graduands this afternoon, red-faced and sweating in their full academic dress for the 28°C degree heat. If they opted for modesty, the other beach goers didn’t get the memo. British flesh on florid display, ranging from lobster-red to milk-white. A few lucky sightseers with bronze skin seemed to walk a little taller, but they were definitely in the minority. Lifeguards, street vendors and tramps made up the rest. Folk who have little choice but to soak up the sun.

Freeze frame. I pop the chip-box in the bin and look around – and really look. Yuppies in “gap-yah” pants and strappy tops. A lady in a wheelchair, and two women at the traffic lights who get to discussing behind their hands how she might have ended up there (the kind of curiosity my generation loves to hound out as aggression). Goth-types with nose rings, vape-sticks protruding from their fingers. On that note, cryptic vape ads everywhere (what on earth is the appeal?). A squadron of Korean cyclists suiting up on the sidewalk. A cormorant flying east along the coast. The indefatigable enthusiasm of the man selling rides on the motionless merry-go-round. A boy with what looks like rickets going by. The blonde girl in her thirties singing her heart out to a crowd of beachgoers enjoying a late lunch. Nobody is looking up at her.


3.35pm
Preston Park Station

The train home is much emptier, but I still walk the length of the train to find a carriage to myself. I pop the headphones back on as the train begins to pull away and Manu Dibango comes on. Sax City, Africadelic and Soul Makossa. Dibango was one of the victims of COVID two years ago. Like Marvin, James and Luther, that’s one more of my favourite artists who I’ll never get the chance to see live (or alive, for that matter).

During the Gospel Choir debacle, I spoke to a colleague and asked for their thoughts. They said they had thought a lot about the issue of music in a post-BLM world, and questioned even having been to a soul music gig as a white person. That messed with my head for months. It’s not that I don’t rate musicians who look like me, but give me a choice between Ed Sheeran and Fela and it’s Fela every time. Pop is catchy, but disco is eternal – it just keeps on giving, fifty years later. Folk is clever but Soul finds notes that folk just can’t. And highlife is surely a candidate for the most feel-good music genre on the planet. How can you deny yourself the chance to listen to such wonders on account of a feeling of awkwardness?

I’m all for better representation in the music industry. It needs it. I just hope we don’t end up carving ourselves up into islands where we can only listen to people who look like us, think like us, talk like us. And I mean that literally as well as musically. Social media is doing that already. It’s a dangerous path we’re treading, and I hope we can weather the storm that’s coming.

Would you look at that. I’m back to sermonising. I think I was doing better with committing acts of high treason for the conquering jellyfish. Time to go. Blppp blppp blpppp. BB x

Finding Doré

Women’s eyes are always bright, whatever the colour.

HENRY RIDER HAGGARD, KING SOLOMON’S MINES

Sunday 27th March. Eight days until Italy, my first solo adventure in a long time. My desk is a little cluttered: a Marco Polo guidebook to Rome, a spare exam paper for Year 7 French, the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s Pirates: Fact & Fiction and various other odds and sundries. The pile of books I dip in and out of continues to grow. Previous girlfriends would have kept that habit in check, but in this bachelor’s pad, the library creeps through the house like an advancing army, billeting its troops on every flat surface in sight.

I don’t know what to expect from Italy. The last time I set off with a city break in mind I came home early. Barcelona was all a bit much, and I didn’t have much of a plan beyond seeing the old city. After three months of windowless boarding school life, however, I’m just looking for a change of scenery, really. Something to make my journal hum with anticipation (since this one is currently the least-travelled of the five, despite having the longest shelf life – thanks a lot, COVID). I’m hoping I’ll meet some interesting people who’ll give me stories to tell, and with whom I can share stories of my own, but the most likely outcome is a solid twenty-odd pages of sketches. And that’s no bad thing.

My primary inspiration in this field is the French illustrator Gustave Doré. You may have seen his works before, even if you don’t know the name: his was the creative genius behind the dark engravings that told the stories of Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno and Don Quixote, as well as various illustrations of the Bible. Some divine brilliance guided that man’s hand throughout his life. Half the hangings in my flat are prints of his, and all of them pillaged from desecrated copies of the most precious book in my library: an illustrated account of the Spanish adventures of Jean Charles Davillier.

It took me over a year to track down a copy of said book for myself. I’m not a collector of rare books, but I do take a small amount of pride in having a well-stocked Spanish library, and when I learned of the existence of this masterpiece, I knew I had to get my hands on one somehow – before they were all chopped up for their precious prints. Its rarity is evident in the ludicrous priced charged by some vendors on the internet: I’ve seen well-kept copies of the book go for as much as £1,350, with the most reasonable offers starting at around the £350 mark. So I could hardly believe my luck when I found an eBay vendor trying to get rid of theirs for £50. Collection only – as if that would prove an obstacle for such a prize. I’ll never forget the sheepish look on the trader’s face as she handed it over.

“Are you a collector, then? It was in a box in my dad’s garage along with all this other junk. Feel free to have a look. We’re converting the place and need to get rid of a lot of his old things. It’s funny, the day after you paid for it, I saw another copy going for several hundred. I guess I undervalued it.”

She did. Considerably. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to me, it’s more than just a rare book of Doré’s. It’s a window into another man’s head: another man who, like myself, came to Spain and was bewitched by its very own brand of black magic.

Of all Doré’s prints, I treasure his landscapes most of all, but it’s his portraits of the Spaniards themselves that I want to leave with you today – and particularly the fair Spanish ladies.

I’ll be honest with you, I’m as much a sucker for beauty as the next man, and when I’m sitting on the high street, or on the Tube, or scrolling through Pinterest, nine times out of ten it’s the girls who catch my eye and stir my pencil into action (Freud and a thousand schoolboys would have a field day with that sentence, I know). Double the prize if the sun is shining at the right angle, and Doré does this spectacularly – you can almost hear the midday heat in the image above with its shadows cast straight down by an unforgiving Castilian sun immediately overhead.

The grass is always greener on the other side, right? My grandfather found something that caught his eye in an English girl, a long time ago, but it’s his people who hold my eye. Not that I’ve ever held down a relationship with a Spaniard. It’s a hard thing to do when you live on this rainy rock, as Spaniards’ ties to their homeland are stronger than steel. I’ve met a few wanderers, but they are the exception to the rule. Cortes, the great conquistador of Cuba and Honduras and the Mexica Empire, came home to die. And when Spain is as beautiful a country as she is, who can blame them?

I’ll leave it to San Isidro of Sevilla to conclude with words more powerful than my own:

Of all the lands that extend from the west to India, thou are the fairest, o sacred Hispania, ever-fecund mother of princes and peoples, rightful queen of all the provinces, from whom west and east draw their light.

SAINT ISIDORE OF SEVILLE, DE LAUDE HISPANIAE

See you soon. BB x

Rewind, Reset, Refocus

Diary Entry: 14th March, 2012. Ten years ago today.

Heavens above, the first night of Fiddler is less than a day away! This year has flown by… Today went by in a similar blur: four frees (essentially), Spanish and English raced past with a quick thrashing of Peter at chess over lunch and a Yearbook planning session. The dress rehearsal was superb – a lot to be ameliorated for the night itself (apparently) but otherwise very good. I must say, personally, I’m impressed with everyone. Our Tevye in particular: he’s come a long way since only just deciding to put his oar in… One of the big five is almost out of the way! The only question is… what next?


When I was seventeen, lists to me were everything. I think it was a long hangover from the teenage bird-watching days: garden lists, patch lists, year lists and lifers. That kind of thing. I wasn’t really the kind of kid who had it all figured out from the beginning, but I did appreciate a tick list to motivate me. I must have the original “bucket list” of fifty miscellaneous tasks I wanted to achieve before the age of fifty stored away on a memory stick, buried deep beneath a hundred other forgotten half-finished jobs, books and games. The irony isn’t lost on me.

I still remember the big five, though. They were the “ultimate goals”, the quests that I had to complete, come Hell or high water. It went something like this:

  1. Play the part of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof
  2. Get a place at Durham University
  3. Travel from Cairo to Cape Town
  4. Get married
  5. Publish the book

You’ll notice that two of them are struck through. Completed. Dicho y hecho. You might well think it more than a little foolish that I managed to get two of my five “great quests” completed within six months of each other, and by the age of eighteen, to boot. You might also question the logic of making the First Quest so very specific, which relied upon a great many external factors, but as the descendant of a lost Jewish family driven into hiding, Fiddler on the Roof holds a very special place in my heart. I was also uncommonly blessed with a musical director for a mother, so I did, I admit, have a significant advantage in achieving one of them early on.

Is there a blessing for a sewing machine?

Durham? Durham wasn’t even up for debate. I simply had to get there. And though I do my very best to advise my own students against such stubborn folly, I was more than prepared to take a gap year and have a second shot when I didn’t get a place at the university of my dreams the first time around. Call it madness, but I wasn’t prepared to accept anywhere else. It was a gamble I ended up making good on, shored up by a much more favourable set of A Level grades. A combination of luck, hard work and stubborn pride secured me the Second Quest.

Of the remaining three, one was swapped out a few years back for a new quest:

3. Find the family

As I got older and my desire for reckless travel steadily fell away – the pressures of holding down a job and being in a relationship will do that to you, I guess – the idea of making the great overland trek from Cairo to Cape Town by any means at hand drifted further and further into the nether realms of lost dreams. Living in Uganda very much whetted my appetite for all things African, but in the years since I’ve been made to question that interest so often, through the lens of anti-colonialism, BLM and the downfall of my Gospel Choir. Eventually, the risks outweighed the allure. I buried that dream a long time ago, and replaced it with a much more personal Third Quest: finding the lost family I had never met.

I found them. That was five years ago – you can read the story here, if you missed it. Of all my quests, the search for my family has been the most precious, and I live in its afterglow twice a week every week as I guide my youngest cousin towards his English B1 exam.

That leaves only two of the original five: arguably, the two chambers of my heart. The book, and the one. I’m not afraid to admit that my single greatest ambition since childhood has been one and the same, and combines those two into one; and that is to read my own stories to my own children one day. It’s an image I’ve had in my head for almost twenty years: sitting on the edge of the bed, my life’s work in my hands, putting on all these silly voices and painting the world I’ve spent decades creating for my children. Leading them there, chapter by chapter. Watching them grow up with my heroes, until they find stories of their own and take up the mantle my great-grandparents passed on to me.

Of course, there’s a small but fundamental stepping stone that must be crossed first: the Fourth Quest.

Getting married and publishing the book. The two quests go hand in hand. That, perhaps, is why coming out of a long-term relationship has been a bit more jarring than I thought it would be. The derailing of two quests at once. A future rerouted, rewritten, a page of thoughts and ideas and names scrubbed blank. It’s not disheartening – nothing can be when the birds are singing and the year is on the turn – but it does leave you knocked out of orbit.


Ten years ago tonight, I was psyching myself up for the first night of Fiddler on the Roof. Tonight, Russian forces continue to cut a burning path through Ukraine. Kiev shelled. Mariupol in flames. Hospitals in ruins. As Motel, I took my young family and fled west into Europe. The radio today was talking about how the British government is offering a tax-free allowance of £350 per month to those willing to put up Ukraine’s refugees. According to the Beeb, some 43,000 have already signed up to help, only five hours in.

The events described in Fiddler took place in 1905. More than a hundred years later, the parallels seem alarming. They put one’s troubles in context. Personal quests and family pride must be denied and set aside and mortified and all that. Perhaps it’s high time I set myself a new quest. In the meantime, there is work, and work is good for the soul, even if marking GCSE translations is a far cry from any soul food I’ve ever eaten. BB x

Tevye: Work hard, Motel. Come to us soon.

Motel: I will, Reb Tevye. I’ll work hard.

Fiddler on the Roof, Act II, Scene 8

Worldbuilding

I have a confession to make. For a wannabe author, I’ve always been rather guarded about my stories. As a teacher I make no secret about the fact that of my various hobbies I love writing best of all, above drawing, above being out and about in nature – and, yes, even above music. Why? Because writing is one of the few things in the world that you can truly call your own. You can’t compare your voice to somebody else’s any more than you can compare your ability to think. But, for all the show of carrying a journal around and self-consciously dropping into conversation now and then that I write for pleasure, I don’t really talk overmuch about my books.

There’s a couple of reasons for that. The first one is simple self-defence, the fear that somebody could steal your ideas and tell your own stories as though they were their own. Laugh if you will at that idea – what story hasn’t been told and retold a thousand times over since the dawn of time? – but an incident involving my artwork, DeviantArt and an alarming case of identity theft back in my schooldays has left me cautious about putting my work out there. In that case, I was lucky that the thief had been indiscriminate in their robbery: though some of the drawings they claimed as their own were odds and sods from the novel, more than a few were portraits of friends from school, so it wasn’t just my intellectual property on the line. Together with some friends, we kicked up a fuss and had the thief’s account taken down. To their credit, DeviantArt were pretty quick. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know who the culprit was, though reason tells me it could only have been somebody I knew. I learned a valuable lesson, though: art is easy to steal.

The second reason is the simplest one: there’s just too much to say in one sitting. I can see that on those occasions when somebody leafs through one of my journals. There’s so much going on in there and none of it in any particular order, and without a map, you’d never know where to start. Entering into a writer’s world is probably a rather daunting experience, like arriving at a house party and finding you don’t know any of the guests. You could try. You could sum up the Lord of the Rings saga by saying it’s all about a quest to destroy a magical ring, but that leaves out the silent terror of the Mines of Moria, the treachery of Gollum and the mournful autumnal kingdom of the elves; the details that make the world come to life. Story-telling is a necessarily one-sided pastime, and since my day job places such an emphasis on listening, my favourite hobby is something I try to avoid at all costs, because it feels selfishly out of sync.

Today, I’m going to break a habit. I’m going to let you into my world.

We can start where it all began. Where it all began to take shape, I mean. According to my journal, that was at 15.30 on Friday 13th November, 2015, on a rocky outcrop beside the Santuario de Nuestra Señora de la Montaña just outside the city of Cáceres. I’d been writing “the book” for about twelve years by then – I can trace the first draft back to 2003 – but it was here in Extremadura that everything suddenly fell into place. As I looked out across the plains of Cáceres and upon the city thrown into shadow by the setting sun, something magical happened. It was as though I was staring at a giant jigsaw puzzle that was suddenly arranging itself into perfect order before my eyes. I wrote myself a note in my journal – “What might this place have looked like in the 1600s?”. Sometime later I pencilled in two words above that line: “it begins!”.

And so it began. The cast of characters I had carried in my head and in my heart for over a decade moved to Spain, and the kingdom of Meridia was born.

Picture a corner of the world where the fields go on forever. A land of immense blue skies and sparsely-populated hill-towns, clustered like barnacles about the few slopes that rise out of the motionless sea of earth, where the merciless sun comes down with unfettered fury in summer, and in winter, chill winds howl unimpeded across the plains. A kingdom that has seen people come and go: Moorish forts atop the limestone crags that the vultures have not claimed for their own; Roman arches and theatres rising out of the earth like the bones of some long-dead giant; and, deep in the mountains that ring this hidden kingdom, the faded artwork of a people so ancient that they have long since faded into oblivion. And such mountains! Look to the north on a clear day and you can see them towering mightily over the fields, vast and blue like the sky above, their peaks scarred with snow well into the spring. That’s where the old forests cling on, fugitives from the axes that carved the Roman Empire from Spanish lumber many centuries ago. And where the forests give way to the water, powerful rivers bubble up from the deep, thundering through the hills and carving sheer ravines through the finger-like ridges that splay across the plains from the Sistema Central.

The best of it is that I don’t have to invent this world at all, because it actually exists, and her name is Extremadura. All I had to do was to imagine her in somebody else’s hands. My hands.

When I first set out to create Meridia – named, of course, for the city of Mérida – I initially wanted to keep the real-world location a secret, until the close of the story, at least. It didn’t take me long to realise just how impossible that was going to be from a worldbuilding perspective, particularly over a saga spanning seven books, but since “big reveals” are and always have been a majorly appealing part of story-telling, I played along for a time. I was also still reluctant to fully transition to the use of Spanish people and place names, so I had a go at creating names of my own.

Casiers. Barosse. Meroon. Looking back now, I’m cringing already at how disgustingly English they sound. But then, few tales come into being in a matter of moments. Worldbuilding takes a long time, longer by far than it takes to tell the story itself. I can only guess at how many hours Tolkien must have poured into the creation of Arda. It’s taken me all of twenty years.

Here’s the same map, drawn about a year later. It’s the eighth of a total of ten maps of the peninsula in the same journal (when students ask me how I can draw a map of Spain from memory… this. This is how). It’s probably the most accurate, and the one I still use today when mapping out the events of the saga, the exception being the retroactive introduction of the “corredor cordobés” that cuts a swathe from Córdoba to the city of Cádiz, separating Meridia from Granada and providing a political flashpoint for the plot. Ringing the map, you can see the history I’ve had to build up around it. I tell you, writing a historical novel is one thing, but writing allohistory – that is, an alternative timeline – is a messy, time-consuming business. If I didn’t keep a journal, I doubt I’d remember all the details. Nevertheless, they’re absolutely essential to giving your world an identity of its own, just as the “Greatest Generation” and the “fight them on the beaches” speech are integral parts of our collective memory.

Creating five hundred years of history for a kingdom which never existed is quite the task. Beginning it is easy, as is the wrapping it all up at the end. It’s what you do in between that’s the trouble. How do you explain away, for example, the men who changed the world who hailed from that corner of the real world? How do you rewrite an essentially Spanish history in a timeline where Granada did not fall until the middle of the seventeenth century, where Seville was in foreign hands for the greater part of the Age of Discoveries, and – perhaps most importantly of all – where almost all of Spain’s conquistadors from Cortés and Pizarro to Francisco de Orellana and Núñez de Balboa hailed from a land that did not carry the flag of Castile?

To be honest, that’s half of the fun, trying to find radically new ways of retelling history. It’s why I wrote my dissertation on the Cronica sarracina, arguably one of the greatest works of fiction ever sold as fact in Spain (or was it fact sold as fiction?). I’m doing the same thing with Meridia: I’m telling the story of Spain through a glass darkly, holding up a devil’s mirror to the country I know best.

And once the world has taken shape in your head, it’s time to set your characters running across its empty plains, so your voice can follow them, painting their footprints with words.

I take my inspiration from the world around me. From books, mostly, but also from photographs, legends, paintings and even conversations with strangers. More than one character has slipped between the pages of the book over the years after a brief encounter with one of those larger-than-life types. In essence, the saga is my paean to my grandfather’s country, so I try to weave as many details in as I can. The madmen of the Hurdes. The seven chairs of Mérida. Goya’s fight with cudgels. The mystery of who really got to the New World first and the Lisbon Earthquake. The odd real person makes a cameo appearance from time to time: Diego Velázquez, Michiel de Ruyter and the lost children of the sack of Baltimore. I get the same satisfaction threading their tales into the narrative as I did from peppering each and every essay I wrote at university with “ursulas” (unnecessarily farfetched sidetracks that somehow relate back to the essay question, named for the sea witch in The Little Mermaid). When you’ve been writing the same story for twenty years, you’ve got to find new ways to keep the game fresh.

And sometimes, it’s not a book or a person that finds its way into the worldbuilding effort, but the real world itself, in real time. Like this little snippet from the journal. I’ll leave you with the date (24/6/2016) and let you guess what it’s referring to.

Worldbuilding is laborious. It takes a bloody long time if you plan to do it right. It took me a matter of seconds to decide to move the fictional kingdom of my childhood into Extremadura, but it’s taken my characters all of five years to finish unpacking. The central characters of the story have only borne their new Spanish names for a little over a year. But it’s easily one of the most entertaining parts of the story-telling business, and it doesn’t half smooth out the writing process when you finally find the time to sit down at the computer and have a solid crack at the next chapter.

So… what would you like to know? Asking for somebody else’s thoughts on what is nothing more or less than the single most precious creation of one’s life is more than a little unnerving – I’m not afraid to admit I got the shivers writing that question – but the purpose of story-telling is to share, and I could do with airing the world inside my head for a change.

Alternatively, if you’re a writer too, does my experience with the worldbuilding process sound familiar? I’d love to hear your thoughts. BB x

Something Old, Something New

There’s a day in the second or third week of January that, at least in these cloud-ridden islands, marks the turning of the year. Not the first day of spring exactly, but an early harbinger that the dark days of winter are finally on the retreat. For me, it’s always marked by the first real blast of birdsong, and it usually goes hand in hand with a generous glow of sunlight after many days of cloud, or that infinite whitening of the sky that is so very well-known to those of us native to this rock. There’s no calling when exactly that day will fall, but when it does, it’s nothing more or less than exactly what the doctor ordered, as far as I’m concerned. I grab my journal and keys, leave the flat, walk up to the office and – boom. There it is. The dawn chorus is already in its final movement, but still going strong. The voices of robin and blackbird and woodpigeon and sparrow lift my heart skywards. I’m then in an irrepressible good mood for weeks which neither marking nor duty nights nor even thunder, rain and storm can stamp out.

I guess I can only apologise to my colleagues for the nauseous wave of positivity that nature washes over me. It’s almost first-year-of-university-level enthusiasm (which, for those of you who knew me then, you know…).

Perhaps spurred on by that wintry magic, I made two random throws this weekend. I bought a kite, and I decided to re-read one of my favourite childhood stories. The kite is easy enough to explain. I had a kite once, when I was a lot younger, which has Jeremy Fisher emblazoned on its face. If I remember correctly, it didn’t fly very well. I guess we never tried it out on a day when the winds were good. It just seemed to gather dust in one of the cupboards until, one day, it disappeared. Anyway, I’ve got the whimsically romantic notion in my head that kite-flying is one of those things I’d love to do with my kids someday, so I ordered one on that whim. It arrived yesterday, and if I get a moment’s peace this week, I’ll put it through its paces out on the South Downs.

As for the reading – alright, I confess, I didn’t do any reading per se. I had a fair amount of spring cleaning to do, but I wanted a soundtrack while I worked and I figured an audiobook would be just the ticket. I’d had Michelle Paver on my mind after dipping my toes back into her ghost stories a few days ago, which naturally conjured up memories of reading her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series when I was at secondary school. I remember absolutely adoring the first in the series, Wolf Brother, and motoring through at least the first sequel through my school library. I cannot remember exactly whether I made it as far as Soul Eater, the third in the saga – if I did, I forgot the plot more completely than that of the second – but I remember the books rising out of a videogame-clogged adolescence like icebergs, one of precious few literary stepping stones across a goggle-eyed, pixelated river that ran at full strength for far too many years. Was it Paver’s intense attention to the natural world in her writing that hooked me? Probably. She is one of my favourite authors for precisely that reason: she knows her settings as though she has lived within them her whole life through.

Wolf Brother had a lasting impact on me as a writer, more than I had previously suspected, and it took listening to the masterful narration of Sir Ian McKellen over the weekend to realise just how deep the roots of her magical storytelling stretched into my own creations. Naturally, my own stories have changed a great deal since I started writing them over twenty years ago, but if you look closely, you can see the tell-tale brush strokes of the authors who showed me the way. I could fire up my hard-drive right now, pull up a folder, pull out a chapter and point out the guiding hand of this or that storyteller. Here is some of Paver’s naturalism, and there’s some Rider Haggard gung-ho. Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell had no small part to play in the healthy dose of tragedy, and I’d wager a fair amount that there are traces of Michael Morpurgo spread throughout like watercolour, since at a certain point in my childhood I pretty much read nothing else. There was just something about his writing that spoke to me like no other writer could. He had me hooked on all his animal-centred storylines, his Scilly Isle adventures, and his occasional reference to something on my wavelength (like namedropping The Corrs in Arthur, High King of Britain). Kensuke’s Kingdom and Why the Whales Came rank near the top, and sit in pride of place by my desk alongside the other books that mark certain turning points in my life: Day of the Triffids for traveling solo, King Solomon’s Mines for going mad in Amman, The Arabian Nights from my university days and The Outrun for a dose of reality when I left that world behind… and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny… just because.

What were the stories that had the biggest impact on you as a child? Which authors colour your writing? I’ve ended the last couple of posts with a question, which is a) repetitive and b) pedantic and c) a sign of how much I’ve been teaching and how little I’ve been writing these past three years. But it’s something I love to ask people, when I get the chance. The power of storytelling has been precious to me since I was a bratty kid insisting on the fifteen-minute bedtime stories and not the three-minute tales (I swear I wasn’t just looking for an excuse to stay up late…!), and I hope it’s a joy I can share with my children someday.

When you come back to a book you enjoyed as a child, you see it through two pairs of eyes and two hearts: the eyes of a child embarking on a journey as though for the first time, and the eyes of a parent who knows the dangers ahead but cannot help hoping things turn out for the best. It’s incredible how the magic contained within the pages of those stories never fades, no matter how many times you come back to it. I make a point of re-reading Triffids every time I travel alone, but I’ve neglected the stories of my childhood for too long.

Once I’m done with the rest of Torak’s adventures, you’re next, Morpurgo!

BB x

The Power of Words

Working life in a boarding school doesn’t exactly give me the time to write I crave. It hardly offers much time for reading, for that matter. But, when a moment comes along when I don’t have lessons to plan, PDPs to fill out, reports to write or duties to carry out, I grab a book and my quote diary and escape for as long as my tired brain allows. I’ve kept a quote diary since 2015, charting my progress through the books I’ve been reading and jotting down any particularly wonderful words or beautiful descriptions – writing that stays with you long after you close the book, like the smoke in the night sky left by a magnificent firework. It’s not the most labour-intensive of blog posts, and yet it is the work of five years of reading. Here’s a selection of my favourite lines from the books I’ve read in that time.

Oh, and if looks as though there’s a lot of H.R. Haggard and M.M. Kaye in there… it’s because there is. Together with Bryce Courtenay, Michael Morpurgo and John Wyndham, they’re my all-time favourite authors.


 

The Garden of Eden, no doubt, looked fair before man was, but I always think that it must have been fairer when Eve adorned it.
Henry Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines

Her father was a man “led by a star”, as the natives say, and would follow it over the edge of the world and be no nearer.
Henry Rider Haggard, The Ghost Kings

It is certain that few build up the temple of their lives upon some firm foundation of hope or hate, of desire or despair… but rather take chance for their architect – and indeed, whether they take him or no, he is still the master builder.
Henry Rider Haggard, Montezuma’s Daughter

Almost every flock of vultures has its king.
Henry Rider Haggard, Marie

“Duty is a fool-word that makes bones of a man before his time and leaves his girl to others.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Marie

“There’s so much human suffering that the whole world should be wailing.”
Joy Chambers, My Zulu, Myself

“A man’s half licked when he says he is.”
Jack London, White Fang

For most of the years of my life I have handled human nature in its raw material, the virgin ore, not the finished ornament that is smelted out of it – if, indeed, it is finished yet, which I greatly doubt.
Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm

There is nothing more uninteresting than to listen to other people’s love affairs.
Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm

“He who walks into a storm must put up with the hailstones.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Child of Storm

“First serve, then ask for wages.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife

“What is life but loss, loss upon loss, til life itself be lost? But in death we may find all the things that we have lost.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife

Complete happiness in this world is not allowed for even an hour.
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan’s Wife

“Music is a living art, ambassador. It’s meant to illuminate the emotions of the one who gives it life. How can written music have any feeling?”
Thomas Hoover, Moghul

“The Infinite will of God is always mysterious, mercifully granting us what we need more often than what we want.”
Thomas Hoover, Moghul

“We are all searching for our own self. But the self is not easy to find, so we travel afar, hoping it lies elsewhere. Searching inward is a much more difficult journey.
Thomas Hoover, Moghul

Kings have frequently lamented the miserable consequence of being born to great things.
Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

There was something in Johnny’s character that was pure gold without a trace of alloy.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“No man goes so far as he who knows not where he is going.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

Conway Barton possessed a love of two things that have never yet failed to ruin those devotees who have worshiped them to excess: Drink and Women.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

It was an age of lavishness. Of enormous meals, enormous families, enormous, spreading skirts and an enormous, spreading empire. Of gross living, grinding poverty, inconceivable prudery, insufferable complacency and incomparable enterprise.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

It is darkest under the lamp.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

Ten men with one heart are equal to a hundred men with different hearts.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“No sport is worthy of the name that does not include an element of risk.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“Though I can feel the wind and hear the thunder, I do not yet despair of avoiding the storm.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“I put my hand upon my knife and walked as a cat walks in an alley full of dogs.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“I have yet to learn that cure is preferable to prevention.”
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

Dasim Ali was a placid and pleasant person who harboured no bitterness towards anyone – except on occasion towards God, who had granted him no sons.
M.M. Kaye, Shadow of the Moon

“Fire is a good friend when men are few and foes are many.”
Henry Rider Haggard, The People of the Mist

What a vast gulf there is between love and loved! It is measureless.
Henry Rider Haggard, The People of the Mist

The devil – a very convenient word at that – is a good fisherman. He has a large book full of flies of different sizes and colours and well he knows how to suit them to each particular fish. But white or black, every fish takes one fly or the other, and then comes the question – is the fish that has swallowed the big, gaudy lure so much worse or more foolish than that which has fallen to the delicate white moth with the same sharp barb in its tail?
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“If the snake had the strength and brain of the elephant, and the fierce courage of the buffalo, soon there would be only one creature left in this world.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“You don’t understand. If only you understood, you would understand.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“You white men are very clever and think that you know everything, but it is not so, for in learning so much that is new, you have forgotten much that is old.”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

The night is dying, the day is not yet born.
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“New journey, new stick, Baas!”
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

Love is the best of medicines – if it be returned.
Henry Rider Haggard, Allan and the Holy Flower

“I am a cosmopolitan. But then the gods of nationalism rose up.”
C.J. Sansom, Dominion

In the summer of 1929 he left for England for a year at Oxford; he felt alone and out of place the whole time there, surrounded by people who mostly seemed either to be decadent aristocrats or pretending to be.
C.J. Sansom, Dominion

“This view reminds me of a story I learned at school: He took Jesus to a high place, and showed all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and said, ‘All these things I will give thee, to have dominion over, if you will fall down and worship me’.” He frowned. “That is not quite right. Was it ‘dominion’ or ‘power’? Anyway, it was something like that.”
“Jesus was a Jew, wasn’t he? Who was it who took Jesus to the high place?”
Gunther shrugged. Then he remembered, with a superstitious shiver, that it had been the Devil.
C.J. Sansom, Dominion

“You don’t see it, do you, people like you? That all you’re doing is standing against the tide of historical destiny. Which, by the way, is about to drown you.”
C.J. Sansom, Dominion

“Love’s a game for the young and lovely, and the mirror, my dear, never lies.”
Aimee Liu, Cloud Mountain

One hundred wireless networks password protected; one thousand humans in an acre holding their wallets close to their genitals.
Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

I heard it said that in London you’re always looking for either a job, a house or a lover.
Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

I wonder if it’s possible to really come back once you’ve lived away for a while, or if it’s called coming ‘home’ when you never belonged.
Amy Liptrot, The Outrun

One day you’ll boast of coming here, but realise you remember nothing about it.
Jane Johnson, Court of Lions

Like eyes they were, and seemed to watch him. The few cliff-dwellings he had seen – all ruins – had left him with haunting memory of age and solitude and something past.
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage

“Proselyter, I reckon you’d better call quick on that God who reveals Himself to you on earth, because He won’t be visiting the place you’re going to.”
Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage

European women are so cold they give you a chance to say no at every turn, and you feel good about it, too.
Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Wednesday looked like he had learned to smile from a manual.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

If he were a real woodsman, he would slice off a steak and grill it over a wood fire. Instead, he sat on a fallen tree and ate a Snickers bar and knew that he wasn’t a real woodsman.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

A salesman in America is naked without his smile.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

That is the tale; the rest is detail.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

We need individual stories. Without individuals we see only numbers: a thousand dead, a hundred thousand dead.
Neil Gaiman, American Gods

“The Americas just swapped Liberty for sugar.”
Thomas Hoover, Caribee

“What can a man know of wine if he samples only one vineyard?”
“A woman might say it depends on whether you prefer flowers or wine.”
Thomas Hoover, Caribee

“You are hungry and honest, and that is very rare in this country.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

When he was younger he had admired people with moneyed childhoods and foreign accents, but he had come to sense an unvoiced yearning in them, a sad search for something they could never find.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

“My name is Gabriel Oak.”
“And mine isn’t. You seem fond of speaking it so decisively, Gabriel Oak.”
Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd

Poets must first be hanged, then mourned at the gallows.
Orhan Pamuk, The Red-Haired Woman

My empire is of the imagination.
Henry Rider Haggard, She

“Swift – be swift- death is in the air we breathe.”
Henry Rider Haggard, She

Mediocrity is the best camouflage known to man.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“My mouth tastes like the splash-board of an Indian lavatory in the mango season.”
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

I imaged hundreds of eyes hungrily devouring my freedom as they watched from the prison darkness.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“Animals, that’s my speciality. You can ask me anything about animals. You name it,” – he brought his hands up as though he were squinting down the barrel of a rifle, pulled an imaginary trigger and made a small explosive sound – “I’ve shot it.” He lowered the imaginary rifle and grinned at me. “I love wild animals.”
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

The concept of a white man coming along and forgiving everyone’s sins and then getting nailed to a post for his trouble seemed a highly unlikely story. As Dum pointed out, white men never forgive sins, they only punish you for them, especially if you are black.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

Ruthless logic is the sign of a limited mind. The truth can only add to the sum of what you know, while a harmless mystery left unexplored often adds to the meaning of life.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“All I know about the Bible is that wherever it goes, there’s trouble.”
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

A natural leader, I have found, need never explain. In fact, they less they explain the more desirable they are as leaders.
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

“To play black, the music must come from your soul and not from your head.”
Bryce Courtenay, The Power of One

Once a man has lived long enough, every moment is a reflection of some other moment.
Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

The name of God is now in the water.
Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

Every person wants to feel that some other man can guide them back into the light.
Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie.
Naomi Alderman, The Liar’s Gospel

“Put your God away. You have one too many loyalties.”
James Clavell, Shogun

“Endeavour” is an abstract word, and unsatisfactory.
James Clavell, Shogun

“Love is a Christian word.”
James Clavell, Shogun

Mutiny breeds in idleness, not in hardship or hard work.
C.S. Forester, The Gun

“The hand of God is at work in León.”
C.S. Forester, The Gun

He had seen for himself, on a brief visit to the interior, one of the slave routes that wound across Africa. A trail that had been clearly marked by hordes of vultures that perched among the flat-topped thorn trees, and the bleached bones and rotting corpses of the innumerable captives who had been unable to go any further, and been left to die where they fell.
M.M. Kaye, Trade Wind

Men were covetous, and the world no longer wide enough.
M.M. Kaye, Trade Wind

“If it is a traveller’s tale, where then are the travellers?”
M.M. Kaye, Trade Wind

One day the old cities, if they were not destroyed by war, would be pulled down and swept away, and in their place would arise a flavourless uniformity of brick and mortar, populated by once-colourful people aping the white men’s dress and speech, so that all cities would in time become identical masses of houses and factories, shops, boulevards, and hotels, linked by trains and steam-ships, and filled with imitation westerners imitating western ways.
M.M. Kaye, Trade Wind

The pinkness overwhelmed a person, as an aphid might feel suddenly thrust into the petals of an overblown rose.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

If you went indoors for a moment, you’d sense from the change of light that something had happened and then, when minutes later you came out again, there were the towering castles of grey tinged with white, real estate for gods and frightening giants.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

“Altruism costs a great deal.”
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

Suspicion feeds upon itself like a cancer.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

People are people through people.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

The law cannot stop a man and a woman.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

Doris with the wonderful tits was about as subtle as a meat-axe.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

“My people [the Jews] have an instinct for knowing when to move. The only we denied that instinct we paid too big a price.”
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

“I do not suffer from the affliction of being white.”
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

Together since the world began, the madman and the lover.
Bryce Courtenay, Tandia

God allows no fragmen tof our souls, no atom of our dust to be lost from his universe.
John Rollin Ridge, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murrieta

“The usual trouble with liberal-minded men is that they think others are, too.”
John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

A city is a desert of bricks and stones.
John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

“There are times when one fails to see why God invented the ostrich.”
John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

The Bomb appears to have no other destiny but to be held up and shaken threateningly.
John Wyndham, The Kraken Wakes

Listener, the joy of a story is in its telling.
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account

Quote Unquote: BEARSKIN by James A. McLaughlin

Somebody must have kicked the reading machine in my head real hard, because it’s working overtime at the moment. I suppose it’s the very real threat of having to read up on plotless educational policy and classroom management that is making fiction so damned attractive at this point in time. With lessons well underway and the dreaded Numeracy Skills Test now but a distant memory, the next task looming is the first of the PGCE written assignments – perhaps the first written assignment in my life that I will not be able to wing on the back of a clunky box of quirky and otherwise useless general knowledge. My capacity for absurdity became something of a badge of honour at university as I made it a personal prerogative to shoehorn the most bizarre comparisons into every essay I submitted. Samurai and pashtunwali found their way into an essay on Lope de Vega. The sea witch from The Little Mermaid popped up in an assignment on La Celestina. The Sack of Baltimore somehow drifted into a commentary on Spanish banditry. And then there was that unforgiveable allusion to the nest-building practices of great-crested grebes in a second-year Spanish language exam on cultural divisions (I got scorched for that one, justifiably, and I don’t think it was because my examiners stumbled over the word somormujo).

Nope. This is one essay that I will have to write with my own blood. And my head will not thank me for it.

So, conscious that I will scarcely have the time to do my own writing this year, I shall endeavour to persevere with my reading project. After muscling through Thin Air in forty-eight hours (a personal record), I threw myself right into another. This time around, I thumbed around for something different and picked James A. McLaughlin’s Bearskin off the shelf…

……..

“Gruesomely gorgeous” is certainly one way of putting it (New York Times Book Review). Bearskin tells the tale of Rice Moore, an Arizona ex-con working as a caretaker on the Turk Mountain preserve in the forests of Virginia whose decision to get to the bottom of a local bear-hunting operation brings him into conflict with the locals, the law, and ghosts from his past. At times hard-edged thriller of the “Dark South”, at others a quasi-mystical exploration of man in the wilderness, Bearskin is a powerful retelling of the lone-man-standing-up-for-the-forest genre, without the ego or distasteful pessimism of the twenty-first century eco-warrior. Rice makes for an appealing hero, a man with no illusions on whom the forest works its magic. Some of the characters are satisfyingly familiar: a John Wayne, no-bullshit sheriff; a thickset Redneck patriarch and his lawless, swaggering sons; a psychopathic assassin who says nothing and yet instils more fear at the mention of his name than any other man in the book. And then there are the others: Dempsey Boger and his hounds, the ethereal mushroom-picker and, of course, the bears themselves.

There are points in the narrative – fugues – when you cannot be entirely certain which world you are in. When the forest takes on a mysterious character of its own and colours and images swim before your eyes in unfamiliar patterns, and time seems to flow in both directions at once. Moore’s ghillie-clad seclusion on the mountain is ritualistic and deliberately so, serving in a sense as an awakening. It was almost stupefying to read. I’ve never taken magic mushrooms myself, but I felt like I had after one of the scenes. Trips may well be relatively easy to recreate through the medium of film, but McLaughlin certainly knows how to write one.

There was only one thing I was left wanting from the story, and that was something more about the bears. They serve as a springboard for the main events of the narrative, but I caught myself waiting for a gratifying (if cliched) encounter with one of the bears at some point towards the end. One gets the sense they are always there, on the periphery of Rice’s world, more like ghosts than creatures of flesh and blood. And perhaps that much is true of the wild, as man and his endless pursuit for dominance pushes such spirits further and further into oblivion. All the same, I reckon the bears might have appreciated some closure.

 


Favourite Scene:

The hellish image of the baiting scene deserves a special mention for its sheer monstrosity: the pawless, gutted carcasses of two bears beneath the totemic severed head of a Charolais, suspended from the trees above by a bloody rebar driven through its eyes. The buzz of flies above, the growl of worrying hounds below and the sickly stench of liquorice. I’d like to give a hand to the stalking scene towards the end for its pace and power, but this static freeze-frame is just one of those scenes that will stay lodged in your mind’s eye forever. Some stories produce characters of eternal weight, others moments of utter majesty, and others still paint pictures with flesh, blood and the stuff of nightmares. There’s a lot of human villainy in Bearskin, but the baiting scene takes the biscuit. Somehow the absence of the perpetrators does the trick: the aftermath is far worse in its silence than the act itself.

 


Favourite Character:

The mushroom picker. McLaughlin strings out a strongly convincing cast of Southern marionettes in Bearskin, but there is one oddity in the bunch who, like the pip of a blackberry, sticks in your jaw long after the cast has come and gone. I was never entirely sure whether he was real or not – and neither am I alone in my doubt, as Rice himself asks this question at least once – but his brief appearances were memorable, to say the least. Who was he? Where did he come from? Was he a mountain man, or something stranger – a vengeful woodland sprite or god, a green man, released from the deepwoods to send the protagonist on a quest? When first he appeared, Rice mistook him for a bear – a mistake he made again on the mushroom picker’s second appearance. To my eyes he is certainly more Beorn than Bombadil, and whatever the author intended him to be, he comes across as by far the most enigmatic and powerful character to emerge from McLaughlin’s narrative.

 


Favourite Quotes:

Information about the universe leaked from the open eye like poison gas.

“So many people hate snakes. I think it’s because they threaten people’s worldview – they’re alien, limbless, impossible, black magic: a stick come to life. But maybe we’re all sticks come to life. We want to think we’re exceptional, ensouled, angel fairies or God’s special children. The magic of being animate matter isn’t enough.”

They ate a quick breakfast, homicide having no effect on their appetites.

 

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Quote Unquote: THIN AIR by Michelle Paver

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The funny thing about being busy is that it makes all the things you wanted to do when you were free that much more achievable. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true. When time is on your side and you have a stack of books to read, it can be hard to even chip away at one. When you have lessons to plan, essays to write, work to mark and affairs to set in order, reading for pleasure suddenly becomes both more appealing and more feasible. Somehow those twenty minutes you carve out of the day always come around. I suppose routine is the answer, as it so often is. It’s just a pity that routine is harder to maintain when you have nothing but time on your hands.

The days are growing shorter. Prep ends in darkness now, and this Saturday just gone, the martins gathered on the abbey roof, as they always do on a certain day every year. The following morning they were gone. All of them. They say a swallow does not a summer make, but for me, summer is always over on that day when the swallows and martins take their leave. Now is the time of cold, crisp mornings, clear blue autumn skies, mist in the trees and the musty smell of mushrooms.

It is also a wonderful time of year for ghost stories.

……..

Thin Air tells the tale of a British expedition up the southwest face of Kangchenjunga, a mountain of fearsome repute in the unforgiving wastes of the Himalayas, as seen through the eyes of Dr Stephen ‘Bodge’ Pearce. The expedition party, an assortment of British public-school chaps (the swot, the bully, the priest and the major), have set their sights on being the first to climb the evil mountain, which has turned away all previous comers and slain several for good measure for even trying. Struggling with an unenviably rocky relationship with his brother, Kits, Stephen tags along as the expedition’s medic. From the very beginning the expedition is hag-ridden by the previous sortie led by the larger-than-life Lyell and company, whose disastrous defeat casts a long shadow over the group’s attempt – in more ways than one. It quickly becomes apparent that Lyell’s disastrous attempt to climb Kangchenjunga was less of a heroic withdrawal than it seemed at first, and as Pearce’s company scales the mountain, something sinister begins to dog them by degrees. Bullied into silence by his older brother, who alone seems oblivious of the creeping dread, Stephen begins to believe they are being haunted by a vengeful spirit. The mountain may not be the only thing determined to prevent them from carrying out the mission that Lyell started…

The story is full of men walking in the shadows of others. Kits marches in the footsteps of his hero, General Lyell. Stephen plays second-fiddle to Kits for most of the narrative, who seemingly does his level-best to keep him from stealing his place in the spotlight. The sherpas follow meekly in their wake, dismayed at their employers’ ignorance, and both a dog and a raven – stylised with the more ominous name of gorak – shadow the company on their ascent into the darkness. More chillingly still, there is always the nameless presence of something unspeakable. And then, of course, there is Kangchenjunga itself, overshadowing them all.

Kangchenjunga is not just a setting. It is an objective, an idea, an antagonist and a fierce deity. It is also far and away the standout character of the story. There are more sinister incarnations of rage at work in the tale, but one is never allowed to forget the raw ferocity of the mighty mountain. It threatens the company with its avalanches. It sends blizzards to slow them down and it reminds them of their chances with the cairns of those who have tried to master it and fallen in the attempt. One of my favourite parts of the Lord of the Rings growing up was the section of Fellowship when the company of nine attempt the pass of Caradhras and are beaten back by a mountain that is more sentient than it appears. There is something truly awesome about nature at its most raw, and Kangchenjunga is Tolkienesque in its might (interestingly enough, Caradhras’ other name, the Redhorn, is evoked at least once in Paver’s description of the mountain’s “dark-red precipices” – a colour that instantly stands out from the whites, greys and blues of the snowbound Himalayas). Stephen, a Western doctor ruled by his head, flatly denies it all, shooing away the sherpas’ fears as the darkness settles:

“This mountain has no spirit, no sentience and no intent. It’s not trying to kill us. It simply is.”

The question is: are you convinced?

This is genuinely one of those books that merits re-reading. There is so much subtle foreshadowing throughout, and a great deal of it will pass you by until the end. To read it again is to watch Dr Pearce and the company march knowingly into the jaws of doom with an even greater surety than before. You knew the mountain was a killer from the word go – Lyell, Pearce and all the others point to that endlessly – but the way in which Paver weaves the narrative forwards and backwards is spine-chillingly precise. I have deliberately avoided talk of the ghost in this ghost story, if only because the less that is said about it the better – the strength of a ghost story is often in that which is left unsaid. If you know, you know, if you don’t, give it a go. And when you’re done, seriously, skim back through and read it again. It’s almost scarier the second time around. Which is exactly what a good ghost story should be.

 


Favourite Scene:

The first cairn. It is Dr Pearce’s first encounter with the reality of their situation – and also his first brush with the nameless terror of the mountains. For the superstitious, there is an ancient belief in some parts of the world that walking the wrong way around a sacred object, such as a pillar or monolith (or in the case of Thin Air, an urn) brings on bad luck. I remember the tradition being used to comedic effect in Tintin, but as soon as it showed its head in Paver’s narrative I knew we were in for trouble – I’m glad she made use of that old trick. Because it felt like the necessary snowball that starts an avalanche. Dr Pearce’s musing before the cairn of Dr Yates, the doctor on the Lyell expedition is both stark and satisfying in its foreshadowing – and powerful in the ensuing scene it delivers. This is definitely one of the scenes that is worth a second look.

 


Favourite Character:

Kangchenjunga. For all of the reasons I laid out above.

 


Favourite Quotes:

Surely the purpose of a grave is to benefit the living. Aren’t the dead beyond caring where they live?

It’s lack of knowledge which lets in the shadows.

Perhaps that’s what we find frightening. Being on a mountain forces us to confront the vast, unsentient reality that’s always present behind our own busy little human world, which we tuck around ourselves like a counterpane, to keep out the cold. No wonder that when we trespass into the mountains, we create phantoms. They’re easier to bear than all this lifelessness.

There is no justice in this world, so why should we expect it in the next?

 


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Quote Unquote: BLINDNESS by José Saramago

**Quote Unquote is a new series of review-style posts geared towards mining my way through the mountain of books I have managed to accrue over the last few years**


 

Tonight I’m going to be looking at Blindness by Portuguese writer José Saramago, Nobel Prize winner and author of The Gospel according to Jesus Christ. I’ve had the book for the best part of a year, having borrowed it from my mother’s collection, and I took it with me on the Camino two weeks ago. I thought it would do me good to get some cultural reading under my belt, and Blindness looked like a light read… at the time. But that’s exactly what you get for not reading the blurb thoroughly, though the title alone should have given me an idea of what I was in for!

In his ensaio, Saramago weaves a monstrous tale centred on, above all else, the darkness in the human heart. It is not so much a cautionary tale as a dreadful reminder that we are only one small stage removed from savagery: one small push is all it takes. In this grim tale, that small push is the loss of sight. Starting with a man who goes suddenly and inexplicably blind whilst waiting at the traffic lights, the blindness spreads like a plague, spreading out from the source and driving panic in its wake. As the authorities race to take action, the affected are quarantined within an asylum, where things deteriorate with terrifying speed, culminating in the rule of force of a bunch of blind thugs who seize the food supply and extort their fellow inmates, first demanding their possessions, then the women. When a timely fire drives the blind out of the asylum and into the world, they find things are not all that much better on the outside. Throughout, Saramago conjures up a bleak world of stumbling and tripping, of unimaginable filth and miserable humanity and the depths to which the world can sink. We see it all through the eyes of the doctor’s wife, the one character miraculously spared the “white evil”, whose ability to see all that transpires becomes something of a curse as she alone is forced to bear witness to the breakdown of the world around her. She, and those within her halo of morality, somehow make it through their terrible ordeal until, just as quickly and inexplicably as it began, the blind have their sight restored.

Saramago’s writing style is hard going, to say the least. Even in translation, Saramago opts for chunky, seemingly endless paragraphs with no markers to indicate who is talking to whom. Like the Nadsat employed in A Clockwork Orange, one adapts to this style of narrative after a while, but it does make for difficult reading at times, especially when multiple characters are in conversation.

I’m not entirely sure what it is about blindness that makes for such a powerful plot device. I often come back to Triffids between books, and there are obvious parallels between the two books, though when rested against Saramago’s version of events, Wyndham’s vision of a world populated by the blind seems remarkably clean. Compared to the latter’s apocalyptic London of shattered windows and irregularly parked cars, the streets of the mental asylum and the unnamed city in Saramago’s work are rancid, litter-strewn and splattered with so much human sewage that one wonders whether the triffids operated a waste disposal service as part of their world domination bid. Wyndham’s world is also laced with an unmistakeable air of Middle England decorum: even after the total breakdown of society, the old laws still apply and sex is as invisible in Triffid-infested England as it is in Middle Earth. Not so with Saramago. There is one scene in particular in Blindness that will probably haunt me to the end of my days, not least of all for having seen it acted out with remarkably human depravity by Gael García Bernal in the 2008 film version (not how I imagined the character, but no less menacing a presence).

Blindness as a theme holds a morbid fascination for me, as sight is the one sense of the five I could not live without – and I can speak with a little experience on this count, as an especially fierce migraine temporarily robbed me of mine when I was eleven years old. It was only for few minutes – it might have been three or it might have been five – but I remember the terror as the world faded into darkness in the middle of a Biology lesson one morning. When my sight returned a few minutes later, I cannot even begin to describe my relief. It was an incident I never got any stick for – which is surprising, given how much of a commotion I must have made, flailing about on my stool and crying out that I could not see – but perhaps that stands testament to the shared understanding seated deep within all of us of the terror of a world without sight; an inheritance from our ancestors of a time before fire and the electric light, when the starless night was inky black and full of danger. That primordial sense of fear is never far away in Saramago’s writing. Stripped of any kind of logic or explanation, the plague of blindness reduces humanity to its very worst, reminding us all that, without sight, our mastery of this world is finished and we are cast back to a primal state which, in all likelihood, will kill us all eventually.

In short, I’m glad I read Blindness, but boy, did Saramago have some demons… I am learning to bleed a little more darkness and despair into my own writing, which is and always has been so thoroughly oversaturated with hope, but I sincerely hope I am never driven to conjure up such a hellish place as Saramago’s asylum for the blind.

 


Favourite Scene:

The blinded icons in the church. You’ll find a lot of the same images in Triffids – the lines of blind people staggering down a street, people clawing hopefully at tins in supermarkets that don’t contain food, the silence of a world where all the cars have suddenly stopped – but there is nothing quite as harrowing in Wyndham’s world as the church of the blinded icons. It’s one of those truly original scenes that one encounters every so often in a good book that stay with you forever. The idea of a vengeful priest scratching out the eyes of the painted saints and blindfolding the statues is monstrously chilling; a vision of lost hope in a figurehead normally associated with being the last bastion of faith in a darkening world. The absence of said priest in the scene, leaving the reasoning to conjecture, only adds to the haunting effect. It is a scene I almost feel moved to paint. Perhaps someday I will give it a try.


Favourite Character: 

The girl with the dark glasses. Cool, independent and frequently insightful, the girl with the dark glasses puts up with a lot in the narrative – in Saramago’s world, a physically attractive woman is no safer in a blind world. She adjusts to her predicament with remarkable speed, adopts an orphaned child and provides an iron support to the women of the asylum through her cool head and determination. The circumstances surrounding her affliction also make for a curious and delightfully awkward plot point – a rare moment of humour in the tale.


Favourite Quotes:

It is necessary to kill when what is still alive is already dead.

I’m not entirely convinced that there are limits to misfortune and evil.

Panic is much faster than the legs that carry it.

I Need A Hero: My Favourite Fictional Leads

I’m off on another adventure in a couple of days. A fortnight in Catalunya awaits – because where better to spend the fallout from all this Brexit madness than with a people who have tussled with independence for centuries? I doubt the Catalans will be all that interested in the petty squabbles of a rather recalcitrant Guirilandia – and anyway, I’m a good deal more interested in their own history – but with another adventure looming, my mind turns back to the world of fiction. I always take a book with me when I travel, as it’s pretty much the one time in the year I can guarantee I’ll get some serious reading done. Frankly, given how important fiction is to me, I’m surprised I haven’t turned my hand to it as a topic more often. So tonight’s post is about putting that to rights. And I thought I’d start with an illustrated list of my favourite storybook heroes.

Perhaps the collection below says a lot more about me than I at first thought possible…


8. El Cid (Cantar del Mio Cid, Anonymous)

Kicking off the top ten with a bit of a controversial one, as this particular hero was a man of flesh and blood before he was a fictional character. Whether or not you choose to see him as a hero rather depends on whose account you choose to follow. Certainly, the Muslim chroniclers of the day didn’t exactly paint a very pretty picture of him. All the same, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is a larger-than-life character in his epics, and the seesaw story of his rise and fall and rise again is – for want of a better word – one of my favourite tales. And now that I’m not at university anymore and don’t have to analyse him as a masculine image, or a symbol of religious fervour, or any of that academic nonsense, and can instead indulge in boyhood fantasies once again, he’s a damned impressive hero who is good to his men, be they Christian or Moor, loyal to his wife and king, protective of his daughters and a generally wise arbiter. It’s just a shame about the episode involving the Jews Raquel and Vidas, or he might have placed higher on this list. For some reason they didn’t include that little episode in the 1961 film…

H_Cid


7. Rat (The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame)

I think one of the things that shocked me most when compiling this list is how quintessentially British most of my favourite heroes are. Come to think of it, there are only really two characters on this list who are not Englishmen by birth or blood. I’d pretty much given up on my homeland for the beauty of foreign lands during my teens. Rediscovering the joy of reading in my early twenties completely turned that around, and made me appreciate on a deeper level characters from my childhood that I’d perhaps not understood fully until that moment. Rat is definitely one of them. An English county gentleman, who balances his seasonal desire to travel and see the world (depicted as a sudden madness) with his unshakeable attachment to his riverside home and his often poetic delight in the countryside around him. Rat always made me think of an England long since gone, albeit much beloved and not entirely forgotten. I could always empathise with Mole stumbling blindly around the new world and Toad still makes me laugh (especially voiced by Rik Mayall),  but I think my heart always did and always will go out to courageous, country-loving Rat.

H_Rat (2)


6. Bill Masen (Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham)

There’s something about the quiet, reflective protagonist of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids that has always drawn me in. Another Englishman, and in many ways as much a caricature as Rat, Bill Masen takes the apocalypse with just the right amount of melancholic reflection and stiff upper lip that you might expect. For a sci-fi book – and a thumping good one, if I might say so – there’s a refreshing absence of the brash, gun-toting, “gotta save the world” Americanisms of your average apocalypse narrative. When he’s not dodging paramilitary groups or sinister man-eating plants, Bill spends most of the book musing on the state of the world after man, the foolishness of man and the loneliness of the human spirit. Triffids will be one of those books I treasure when I grow old, as it was Bill Masen’s thoughts on loneliness that gave me solace when I travelled solo across Spain.

H_Masen


5. Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn (The Far Pavilions, M.M. Kaye)

Let’s be perfectly honest here, to write a list of my favourite fictional heroes and not include the central character of what has always been my favourite book of all time would be nothing short of criminal. Orphaned shortly after birth in an opening that never ceases to chill me, Ashton (Ash) is raised by his father’s syce and spends his childhood under the impression that he’s Indian, before being rudely awakened to his English heritage after a series of adventures. He spends most of the book dealing with the fallout from that revelation, never entirely sure where his loyalties lie, and consequently never truly fitting in anywhere. The only trouble with Ash is he’s just too perfect. He slips up and gets hurt, and you can really feel his pain and his anger when he does, but even as a naïve young man he comes across as just a little bit too good to be true: fluent in more than five languages, an extremely talented sportsman, a natural with the ladies from his first experience and frustratingly good-looking, so much so that he spends most of the book being able to pass for Englishman, Afghan, Nepali or just about anything the plot requires, without having a drop of Pathan blood in him at all. Even so, I confess myself charmed by his tenacity from the beginning and have rarely felt so strongly about a protagonist as I have for Ashton Pelham-Martyn.

H_Ash


4. Hazel (Watership Down, Richard Adams)

The second anthropomorphic hero on this list is a rabbit, and this one doesn’t even dress like a hero. He’s just a rabbit, and neither the strongest nor the fastest of the rabbits of the Sandleford Warren, but in many ways he’s a greater hero than many of the characters on this list. John Hurt’s voiceover in the 1978 film only sealed the deal. I admit that I saw the animated movie before I read the book, but it evidently didn’t scar me for life as it did to many others as I did go on to read the book (though whoever decided that a visual representation of rabbits being gassed en masse was deserving of a U-rating obviously had some demons). Hazel is wise, caring and self-sacrificing; a true leader, equipped with all the merits of El-Ahrairah, the Prince of Rabbits (a sort of lapine Anansi/Coyote). I know Bigwig has always been the traditional fan favourite, but for me, it’s got to be Hazel, because he’s the kind of leader I could believe in. A hero with no pretensions to glory or leadership, but who looks out for every single member of his clan, and who becomes a leader quite organically as the story develops.

H_Hazel (2)


3. Tintin

Probably the most well-known character on this list, Tintin has been in my heart since I was a lad. His agelessness, his never-ending sense of adventure, the fact that you could essentially paint yourself into his shoes wherever he went… and the fact that I’ve been compared to him in every single line of work I’ve ever had, due in part to my round face and strange quiff-thing going on with my crowns. If we forget his earlier iterations (Tintin au Congo was written by a Belgian in a very different age), Tintin is a young man with a heart of gold. Tintin in Tibet is probably his finest hour, showcasing the Belgian reporter’s winsome determination and hope to find his lost friend, who pretty much everybody else has given up for dead. I had every Tintin book bar one as a kid (Dead Sea Sharks), and he’s one of those rare heroes whom I value above the supporting cast, no matter how colourful and memorable they may be (here’s looking at you Captain Haddock, Cuthbert Calculus and, of course, Thompson and Thomson).

H_Tintin


2. Peekay

The top two spaces go to two heroes who share the same country: South Africa. British by blood, Peter Philip Kenneth Keith – unfortunately named by his parents, more fortunately shortened to Peekay by the author – has a hard lot growing up as a little boy in an adult world. You hardly even notice him age as he often seems mature beyond his years, the result of being forced to land on his feet by his born-again mother and his tormentors, including the Judge and the vile Sergeant Bormann. The way Courtenay has him describe loneliness is every bit as powerful as Wyndham, if not doubly so in that it comes from the voice of a child. And Peekay’s fierce sense of justice and morality – a common feature in Courtenay’s heroes – is exactly the kind of thing I could go for. Throw antiheroes and bad-guys-gone-good at me all day, but I love a hero with a strong moral compass. I wanted to learn to box when I read the book and watched the film, so greatly did I fall under the spell of this particular fighter. All the same, when it comes to the title bout for my favourite fictional hero, there’s one man who just beats Peekay to the punch…

H_Peekay


1. Allan Quatermain

If you’ve read my writing before, this will be no surprise. Allan Quatermain is my favourite fictional character, hands down, no contest. Not the version you might have seen in League of Extraordinary Gentleman movie (though the graphic novel is close enough), I’m talking about the original. Humble. Wise. Melancholic. Cynical, but not unadventurous. And, though modern readers might find his language more than a little antiquated and even offensive, rather advanced and liberal-minded for his day. Allan Quatermain was the inspiration for such legendary figures as Indiana Jones, but I’ve always found the source material a good deal more inspiring. Maybe it’s his undaunting appearance – a wiry old man with bristly hair, a short stature and a shrinking habit – that makes him so likeable. He lives alone, but keeps good company and is a ceaseless fountain of wisdom, whether that wisdom comes from his own mouth or the mouths of his sage companions like Hans, or Umslopogaas, or Indaba-zimbi. Perhaps, above all else, the true quality of Allan Quatermain is the quality of his writer. The old adage, write about what you know, can be a little restrictive for those who enjoy historical fiction. Henry Rider Haggard, however, was at the very heart of the world about which he wrote, seeing the Boer Wars at first hand and even taking an active role in them himself. Quatermain taught me a lot about the world when I started reading again, but most importantly of all, he gave me a reason to embrace my homeland once again. It will be a while before any hero, great or small, topples the great Macumazahn from his seat at the top of this list.

H_Allan

Special mention: Quint & Maris (The Edge Chronicles, Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell), Harry Flashman (Flashman, George MacDonald Fraser), Richard Sharpe (Sharpe’s Tiger, Bernard Cornwell) and Tommo (Private Peaceful – but just about every protagonist from Michael Morpurgo’s books would do)

Did you like this list? Feel free to copy the idea for posts of your own. BB x